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The Happiest Place in Mississippi

From petting a zebra to enjoying a fine-dining experience, find happiness in many forms at McClain Resort in Brandon.

Written by Rachel Burchfield | Photographed by Joe Worthem

A while back, Buddy and Joni McClain took their kids and grandkids on a trip to the Global Wildlife Center in Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana. Everybody had an unbelievably good time, Buddy said — they rode the wagon through the safari park there, feeding the animals, soaking it all in.

“I turned to my grandkids and said, ‘Pop Pop can do this,’” Buddy said. “And we came back and did it. It’s a lot easier saying it than doing it — it was a great challenge. But it was fun.”

The McClains launched McClain Resort in Brandon in February 2018, with its very own safari park opening in May 2019. The resort includes not only a wildlife safari and an accompanying petting zoo but also three restaurants (a steakhouse, a Southern-style buffet and a tavern), on-site hotel accommodations, events and catering for weddings and corporate events, and a general store that sells Mississippi-made products and local produce and boasts a butcher shop, a coffee shop and a bakery. It’s six separate businesses under one proverbial roof, and there’s never a dull moment.

“[The six businesses] are all so very different, and its an exciting challenge to bring all of them together to mesh,” Buddy said. “What we kept figuring out was families need a place to go. There’s not many great family places to go that have the wholesomeness of McClain. We want to be a destination for families — grandparents can bring their grandkids, and people can bring their friends from out of town. If there’s five places in Jackson you want to take ’em, we want McClain to be one of them.”

McClain Resort is an amalgamation of Buddy’s background operating more than 100 Sonic restaurants over the years — though, he said, operating a steakhouse or a bar is, no pun intended, a totally different animal. Joni, for her part, has been an event planner for more than a quarter century. (For the record, not shockingly, neither has any experience operating a wildlife safari.) Buddy and Joni themselves were married at the chapel on the nearly 2,000 acres of the resort; now they plan weddings for others there all the time. The McClains take great pride in the resort that bears their name, and 16-hour days are commonplace, they say.

“There are so many moving parts,” Buddy said. “When you go to work in the morning, you never know what you’re going to do throughout the day. The day is over in a few hours, but we’ll be there 16 hours and tired and didn’t even do what we came to accomplish. There’s so many things to do, and we’re all over the place doing a little bit of everything.”

The resort started out with 230 employees, but, like many businesses, the COVID-19 pandemic hit McClain hard: Prior to the pandemic, visitors to the safari rode around in a wagon pulled by a tractor. During the pandemic, McClain quickly pivoted to a drive-thru safari, which it remains today. Weddings had to cease, and the restaurants were shuttered as well.

“We lost 90% of our business in a 30-day period,” Buddy said. “There was a lot of shuffling.”

McClain employees are “like one big family,” Joni said, so cutting the staff down to 84 during that time was tough. The employee count is now back up to around 150, and, while 2021 has still been difficult — just in a different way, Buddy said — the woes of 2020 seem to, thankfully, be behind them.

“We are back as good as we ever was,” he said. “The adjustments we made were well-thought out and planned and fit the world better today. The crew is back together, and we’re stabilized and consistent.”

Even in the worst parts of the pandemic, when their staff had been cut by nearly two-thirds, the team at McClain showed strength, Joni said.

“It’s amazing what people can do, even when short-staffed,” she said. “They stepped up and got fast and furious. Now, we are getting more and more busy. When we walked in one Sunday after church, the line was out the front door of people waiting to get in. It’s so rewarding to see that again.”

Buddy and Joni cross-train their employees, teaching their staff about the entire resort and pushing them to find their passion on the property.

“They’re ambassadors of McClain,” Joni said. “With six businesses now under one roof, a guest may come in and say ‘Where’s the restaurant?’ or ‘Where do I go for the safari?’ We’ve cross-trained everybody to know the whole resort. It’s exciting to me to watch people blossom and bloom. They are excited to learn so many different things — it’s never the same ol’, same ol’.”

There are no immediate plans to add to the resort, but Buddy said they will continue fine-tuning, finding the right animals for the safari, birthing new baby animals, and updating the exteriors of the resort with a large focus on beautification and making the safari bigger, better and more enjoyable. Ultimately, he said, it’s about making the guests happy.

“We have something for everybody,” Joni said. “It doesn’t matter what age you are — we see everyone from great-grandparents to infants. It’s a wholesome, feel-good, warm, inviting place. People post how happy they are when they leave, and I think that’s what brings us joy. The greatest thing for us is seeing the joy on people’s faces. That’s the reward for us — it’s not about making money. It’s about seeing people happy.”

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