It’s a perennial lament of McDonald’s loyalists: Why are the ice cream machines always out?
For fans of the fast-food giant’s soft-serve cones, sundaes and, of course, McFlurries, the seemingly constant technical difficulties can feel personal. The situation has inspired snarky memes and mockery on social media, serious news questions and less serious conspiracy theories. All the while, rival chains like Wendy’s delighted in dysfunction, and frustrated customers have turned their anger on employees.
In 2018, two friends in California saw an opportunity and created an app that they said would help restaurant owners troubleshoot machine malfunctions without having to call a technician. Their company, Kytch, sold the program to hundreds of franchisees. But growth came to a cold halt in 2021 when McDonald’s began sending notices to franchisees warning them that the technology could lead to employee injuries.
The company is now suing McDonald’s, accusing the chain of collaborating with the Taylor Company – the maker of its ice cream machines – to defame Kytch while copying its technology.
‘We thought we were the solution’
Melissa Nelson and Jeremy O’Sullivan, who met as a freshman in 2005 at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, say Kytch was born from FroBot, a company they started in 2011 that sold frozen desserts from automated soft-serve machines. machinery.
FroBot used machines from the Taylor Company, but they kept breaking down, Ms. Nelson, Kytch’s co-founder and president, recalled last week. The only way to fix them was to call Taylor-authorized technicians, who would often attribute the problem to a lack of electrical power, if the company found a problem at all, she said.
Frustrated, Ms. Nelson and Mr. O’Sullivan came up with the Kytch solution, an online platform that allows customers to remotely monitor and control soft-serve machines by retrieving data from McDonald’s machines and displaying it on Kytch’s interface.
They began marketing the device to McDonald’s and Burger King franchisees, who praised the product. In 2019, Kytch sold the technology to more than 400 McDonald’s franchisees, Ms. Nelson said.
“We thought we were the solution,” says Mr. O’Sullivan, co-founder and CEO of the company.
Then, in November 2020, messages declaring their product unsafe went out, he said.
“If their goal was to destroy Kytch, they succeeded,” Mr. O’Sullivan said.
Tim FitzGerald, chief executive of the Middleby Corporation, which owns the Taylor Company, denied that was the goal.
“It is not our intention to put other companies out of business,” he said. “The product had not been tested or validated in conjunction with the food safety protocols of a Taylor machine.”
This month, the founders of Kytch filed a lawsuit against McDonald’s in U.S. District Court in Delaware, seeking $900 million in damages. Ms. Nelson and Mr. O’Sullivan say the number is a reflection of the damage and what their business would have been worth had McDonald’s not deterred current and potential customers with the alarming reports.
McDonald’s said Kytch’s claims were “undeserved.”
“McDonald’s owes it to our customers, crew and franchisees to maintain our rigorous safety standards and to partner with fully vetted suppliers in that effort,” the company said in a statement this week.
Kytch said that at the same time that McDonald’s was trying to undermine the product, the chain and Taylor had regular meetings with franchisees who had bought the program from Kytch to find out how to copy the technology, the lawsuit said. Kytch has sued Taylor separately in California’s Alameda County Superior Court.
Last week, a judge in that court rejected Kytch’s request for an injunction against Taylor, who has developed a similar product. The judge, Michael Markman, said there was no evidence that Taylor’s system “was built with or contains a trade secret of Kytch.”
The case is still pending.
“We are very early in the case and we look forward to seeing what the evidence reveals,” said Daniel Watkins, an attorney for Ms. Nelson and Mr. O’Sullivan.
The ice cream at McDonald’s comes from the Taylor Model C602, a combination of shake and soft serve ice cream freezers with a touch screen that allows employees to quickly fulfill dessert orders.
Other Taylor models are used at Wendy’s and Burger King locations and in ice cream parlors across the country. But when the machines at McDonald’s stop working, they trigger particularly strong emotions among disappointed customers.
There’s even an online map and app, McBroken.com, that gives McDonald’s customers a real-time look at which locations across the country have broken ice machines. (As of Thursday morning, more than 22 percent of McDonald’s locations in New York City had broken ice machines.)
When the machines are turned off, they give “confusing messages that leave McDonald’s franchisees frustrated and unable to operate the machine,” according to Kytch’s lawsuit.
Owners and employees have no choice but to call technicians authorized by Taylor to fix the problem, usually at a cost of hundreds of dollars per visit, Mr. O’Sullivan said.
Darcy Bretz, a spokeswoman for Middleby, says the machines come with instruction manuals explaining the error codes.
Mr FitzGerald says the machines should be shut down throughout the day for cleaning and routine maintenance.
“It can give the impression that the machine is broken,” he said.
Mr FitzGerald said Taylor ice machines could run 24 hours a day and had an average life of 16 years. Maintaining them is much less expensive than replacing them, he said.
In a statement, McDonald’s, who pokes fun at the reputation of his machinessaid the company had begun offering new training resources for crew members and was carrying out regular maintenance on its machines.
However, the complaints have led the Federal Trade Commission to ask questions, according to The Wall Street Journal, which reported in September that the agency had sent a letter to McDonald’s about the machines. Mr FitzGerald said the committee had not contacted Middleby.
Betsy Lordan, a spokeswoman for the commission, declined to comment on the problems with the machines.
“We will not comment unless we file a complaint,” she said.
David Kass, a former economist on the commission and a clinical professor at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, says the agency gets involved when there are numerous complaints about a product as well as “enough substance” at the complaints .
Professor Kass said he was baffled that McDonald’s had gone so long without finding a permanent solution for its ice cream machines.
“If they are disappointed enough often, customers will go elsewhere,” he said.
Do you want a McFlurry? Call your state legislator.
In New York State, a bill known as the “Digital Fair Repair Act” would require manufacturers to make their diagnostic and repair information available to independent repair technicians and customers.
As of 2021, 25 states have introduced similar bills, but the legislation in New York has gained traction, said Senator Kevin Thomas, a lead sponsor of the bill whose district includes parts of Nassau County.
The legislation was passed by the state Senate last year, he said, making it the first of its kind to clear a legislative chamber. It had stalled in the Assembly, said Mr Thomas.
He said there had been strong lobbied against the bill by manufacturers, but he was hopeful that consumer demands would overtake that resistance.
“For a faster McFlurry,” said Mr. Thomas, “you must approve this bill.”
Kirsten Noyes research contributed.