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 Bob Markaj, left, and Jim Tamburrini stand next to a new lighthouse shipped to River Rat, in Harrison Township, the week of Jan. 26.

Bob Markaj, left, and Jim Tamburrini stand next to a new lighthouse shipped to River Rat, in Harrison Township, the week of Jan. 26.

Photo by Nick Mordowanec

Local restaurant gets new owner and a fresh look

By: Nick Mordowanec | Mount Clemens - Clinton - Harrison Journal | Published February 14, 2020

HARRISON TOWNSHIP — Jim Tamburrini and Anthony Palleschi bought River Rat in 2007, turning the local spot into a popular destination for boaters and nonboaters alike.

It has been a staple at 29370 S. River Road in Harrison Township since the old days, when it was known as Shannon’s Steak House.

Now, after initially remodeling the 1970s-looking establishment and keeping a steady stream of clientele over the past decade, the cousins and business partners want a break.

On Nov. 20, just about a month after first meeting through a shared mutual business broker, the partners sold the business to Bob Markaj, of Troy.

“Tony and I are both getting at an age where we need to slow down, so we looked around and found what we think is the best guy to do the job and take it over and keep River Rat the same,” said Tamburrini, of Harrison Township.

Palleschi is also the owner of Villa Restaurant, on Gratiot Avenue, in Eastpointe.

Markaj, who came to the United States from Albania in 1997, is no stranger to the industry.

For nine years he owned and operated Charlie’s Restaurant, located on Harper Avenue in St. Clair Shores. But for the husband and father of three sons, the wear and tear of the job became too much.

He left Charlie’s about six months ago, though he still owns the property.

“It was too much there,” Markaj said Feb. 5. “That place was family dining, open breakfast, lunch, dinner. This is only dinner. It makes a big difference.”

The food menu will remain exactly the same at River Rat.

“I like the location. I love the menu,” Markaj said. “They have a really rich menu, a good menu. I love the recipes.”

There will be physical changes, however. An all-new interior is being designed, including windows, a fireplace, TVs, a new bar with a new countertop and upgraded bathrooms. It’s essentially a facelift 13 years after Tamburrini and Palleschi “just about shelled the whole building.”

A new lighthouse shipped from the East Coast now stands mighty tall in front of the front doors, in keeping with the nautical scene of the area.

Tamburrini isn’t going away permanently, either. He and Markaj have agreed that he will consult about three times per week, saying that the new owner “saw the value” in a local community face that will continue to preserve the establishment.

“It was just a good deal all the way around,” Tamburrini said. “It suited his needs and suited our needs, so that’s why we decided to do it.

“One thing that was kind of important to (me and Palleschi), we really didn’t want to see anybody buy this and tear the River Rat apart. It was well accepted by the community, the business was good, we’ve suffered through all the changes and the menus and what the people wanted. There was really no need to do that.”

The pair say that upgrades should likely be 95% done by mid-March, ready for the new season of visitors who arrive as the weather warms. Different sections are being completed over time in an attempt to stay open and be efficient.

In the offseason, there are about 28 to 30 employees. In the busy season, that number increases to 35 or 40 employees.

Looking after what is essentially a one-shift restaurant is a perfect fit for Markaj. Finding affable owners while having one of them work as a consultant was an unknown gift.

“He’s a very helpful guy,” Markaj said of Tamburrini. “And I got more connected to him and the place. It made me happy.”

Harrison Township Supervisor Kenneth Verkest said the establishment has “a long history” in the township, since the 1940s or 1950s.

“I think Jimmy did a good job, it’s a popular place,” Verkest said. “I think it’s a good thing he’s involved to help the new owner succeed.”

He said local establishments where individuals can convene are important, they “help to define the character of the township.”

“People will always have their favorites. They also offer local young employees a place to work or start out, while being destinations for those who head towards the lake part of the year,” Verkest said.

“Harrison Township doesn’t have chain restaurants,” he added. “We have locally owned restaurants owned by residents of Harrison Township.”