After years of being the butt of Twitter quips and late-night standup routines, McDonald’s broken ice cream machines are being investigated by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. According to a letter obtained by the Wall Street Journal, the FTC reached out to McDonald’s franchisees this summer asking for information on why the machines are always broken and are so hard to fix.
The answer, as it turns out, is complicated.
While McFlurries account for 60% of the quick-service chain’s dessert sales, according to Technomic data, the machinery is temperamental and has even led to petitions signed by both McDonald’s employees and fans demanding that McDonald’s fix the problem. According to the McBroken website, approximately 11% of McDonald’s ice cream machines are currently out of service, including more than one-quarter in New York.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the problematic machinery is produced by Taylor Company, a foodservice equipment company that churns out frozen dessert and cocktail machines, as well as commercial-sized freezers. McDonald’s workers have described the process for maintaining the machines as “overly complicated” with an overnight cleaning cycle that can easily fail and takes a Taylor repairperson to fix it. Taylor has defended its machinery in response to complaints:
“A lot of what’s been broadcasted can be attributed to the lack of knowledge about the equipment and how they operate in the restaurants,” a Taylor representative said in a media statement, telling the Wall Street Journal that when working with dairy products, “you have to make sure the machine is cleaned properly. The machines are built up with a lot of interconnecting parts that have to operate in a complex environment and manner.”
The issues have been going on for years, and in 2017, McDonald’s announced a new contract with an Italian ice cream machine company, Carpigiani, and from then on, franchisees could choose which vendor they work with.
Franchisees have also taken it upon themselves to seek out external solutions to their broken ice cream machines, including tech company Kytch Inc., which created a device that can attach to an ice cream machine and provide real-time analytics and AI-powered maintenance, using the technology of single board computer, Raspberry Pi. In May, Kytch hit Taylor with a lawsuit, accusing the company of having a monopoly on the machine’s repairs and refusing to allow customers to use outside sources to get the machines fixed.
Taylor responded to the lawsuit by claiming that using the Kytch devices could “cause serious human injury.” In July, Kytch won one legal battle against Taylor, after a California judge issued a temporary restraining order after Kytch claimed Taylor had obtained a Kytch device for the purpose of stealing trade secrets from the company.
In response, though Taylor denied it was trying to copy the Kytch device for its own purposes, court documents obtained by Vice show that Taylor admitted it had procured one of the Kytch devices "in order to evaluate and assess its potential technology-related impacts upon our Soft Serve Machine—such as whether the radio frequency of the Kytch device would interfere with our software signal, or whether the Kytch device would drain the power source of our software and/or cause it malfunction.”
According to the July restraining order, Taylor was forced to hand over all of its Kytch solution devices.
“These guys did a really effective job at frightening off all of our customers and investors so we're hoping the public will support our case in the name of justice, right to repair and humanity,” Jeremy O’Sullivan, co-founder of Kytch, told Vice on Aug. 9. “We still have some diehard customers sticking with us. Though few in comparison to what we once had before McDonald’s and Taylor called our product dangerous.”
In response, Taylor has told multiple media outlets that they do not infringe on rights of franchisees to repair the machines using outside sources, but warned that if they do so, their warranty is voided.
While this ice cream machine war is going on, McDonald’s has clarified that they are working on internal solutions to fix the ongoing machinery issue.
“Intrinsic to the interest in our soft serve machines is our fans’ love of McDonald’s iconic McFlurry desserts and shakes,” McDonald’s told Nation’s Restaurant News in an emailed statement. “Nothing is more important to us than delivering on our high standards for food quality and safety, which is why we work with fully vetted partners that can reliably provide safe solutions at scale.”
Furthermore, McDonald’s confirmed that “it has no reason to believe we are the focus of an FTC investigation.”
Nation’s Restaurant News reached out to both McDonald’s and Taylor to clarify if Taylor was the focus of the FTC investigation, which is only in its preliminary stages, but did not receive a response in time for publication.
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