You will have no trouble buying burgers at McDonald’s. But the ice cream? That’s a different story, as correspondent David Pogue discovered during a franchise drive-thru. “I’m sorry,” he was told, “we actually don’t have any ice cream at the moment.”
McDonald’s broken ice cream machines have become a national punchline. Last week, 19% of them were down in San Diego and 28% in New York. That’s according to McBroken.com, a website designed to track machines in real time.
McDonald’s says rumors of their outages are greatly exaggerated, but even they laughed off the issue. In 2020, the company tweeted:
For decades, Illinois-based Taylor has been the exclusive supplier of McDonald’s serve and shake machines. Jeremy O’Sullivan discovered these machines in 2011, when he and his partner, Melissa Nelson, founded a line of frozen yogurt kiosks. They call Taylor machines temperamental and over-engineered.
O’Sullivan showed Pogue a typical error message on a unit like McDonald’s soft serve machine: “‘R BRL > 41F after SL’? Just tell me what BRL stands for!”
Now, just because a machine is down doesn’t mean it’s actually down. He could just go through his mandatory, daily, four-hour pasteurization sequence. “Each step in this process has to be done and executed within a certain amount of time or it all fails and it has to restart,” O’Sullivan said.
Pogue asked, “I would come in the morning and what would it be like?”
“Heating cycle failed.”
O’Sullivan even claims the flimsy design was intentional, so Taylor could reap repair costs. He said, “A McDonald’s employee is supposed to pick up the phone, call a Taylor tech, ‘Hey, please come on. We really want to pay Taylor $500 more for the repairs.'”
Well, maybe that’s not particularly true. Taylor declined an on-camera interview, but said via email, “Taylor makes no money servicing their machines. All Taylor machine repairs are handled by a network of independent distributors.”
Although that’s not entirely true either. Taylor charges these technicians for training costs, and about 25% of the company’s revenue comes from the sale of spare parts.
So, to deal with the situation, O’Sullivan and Nelson imagined Kytch, a small computer that attaches to the front panel of the serving machine. “It decrypts very complicated messages that your typical employee may not understand,” Nelson said.
“So it would say, ‘HPR > 41 SL’, what would the Kytch message say more useful than that?”
“Maybe something as simple as, ‘This hopper got hot because you left the lid open,'” O’Sullivan replied.
The Kytch device also offers a remote control. If the machine shuts down while the owner is home, Kytch lets him know and allows him to restart the machine through his phone.
The founders say the Kytch add-on has been a hit with McDonald’s owners, and even got a thumbs up from the head of the franchise owners’ equipment team, who in 2020 told a rally “I really think this device can reduce complexity in your restaurants…and help generate cash flow by keeping your machines running.”
But unbeknownst to Kytch, Taylor had developed his own similar device and was studying the Kytch to mimic its characteristics. A Taylor executive emailed, “So how can we do the same as Kytch?”
Then, at the end of 2020, McDonald’s emailed the owners of all 13,000 franchises. According to O’Sullivan, “They said, ‘Don’t use Kytch.'”
“He basically said Kytch could cause serious human injury,” Nelson added.
“How would that happen?” Pogue asked.
“Well, that’s not possible,” O’Sullivan replied.
The memo said the Kytch remote control feature could start the machine while someone was cleaning or maintaining it, endangering employees’ fingers.
But that might not be entirely true either. said Nelson. “All those dangerous parts that are inside the machine? When you remove the door, Kytch can’t work. Nothing can happen.”
“The only danger Kytch ever offered was on Taylor’s bottom line,” O’Sullivan said.
After McDonald’s memo, business dried up and Kytch closed. The founders are now suing Taylor and McDonald’s for millions of dollars.
Pogue said, “Reverse engineering isn’t illegal; it’s a dirty pool, but it’s not illegal.”
O’Sullivan said, “There’s a bunch of stuff here that’s super illegal. You can’t say something’s dangerous when it’s not dangerous.”
Nelson added: “So it’s mostly fake advertising, interfering with our business expectations.”
McDonald’s also declined an interview, but said via email that the Kytch device is unauthorized equipment that Kytch never submitted to McDonald’s for safety testing. McDonald’s calls lawsuit ‘baseless’; and Taylor says it’s “based on false allegations.”
But until the prosecution ended, Taylor put her own device on ice.
So, for now, we can all expect more social media moments from downed machines.
O’Sullivan said, “You know, I think there’s an illusion that you just need to work really hard and build a good mousetrap. Take the one from people who built a better mousetrap and were pretty naive to think, ‘Oh my God, they’re going to love our solution.’ Not the case!”
For more information:
Story produced by Dustin Stephens. Publisher: Mike Levine.