McDonald’s ice cream woes have inspired memes, mockery and now, a federal lawsuit

It’s an eternal lament from McDonald’s faithful: why are the ice cream machines always broken?

For fans of cones, sundaes and, of course, McFlurries, the seemingly constant technical difficulties can feel personal. The situation has inspired sarcastic memes and mockery on social media, serious news investigations and less than serious conspiracy theories. All the while, rival chains like Wendy’s have delighted into dysfunction, and frustrated customers took their anger out on employees.

In 2018, two friends in California saw an opportunity and created an app they believed would help restorers fix machine problems without having to call a technician. Their company, Kytch, has sold the program to hundreds of franchisees. But in 2021, its growth was brought to a halt when McDonald’s began sending out notices to franchisees warning them that the technology could cause injury to workers.

The company is now suing McDonald’s, accusing the chain of working with the Taylor Company – the maker of its ice cream machines – to defame Kytch while simultaneously trying to copy its technology.

Melissa Nelson and Jeremy O’Sullivan, who met in 2005 when they were freshmen at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, say Kytch was born out of FroBot, a company they started in 2011 and sold frozen desserts from automated soft-serve machines.

FroBot used machines from the Taylor company, but they kept breaking down, Ms Nelson, co-founder and president of Kytch, recalled last week. The only way to fix them was to call Taylor-certified technicians, who often blamed the problem on a lack of electricity, if the company discovered a problem, she said.

Frustrated, Ms Nelson and Mr O’Sullivan came up with the Kytch solution, an online platform that allowed customers to remotely monitor and control soft-serve machines by retrieving data from McDonald’s machines and then displaying it. on the Kytch interface.

They began marketing the device to McDonald’s and Burger King franchise owners, who praised the product. In 2019, Kytch sold the technology to more than 400 McDonald’s franchise owners, Ms Nelson said.

“We thought we were the solution,” said Mr. O’Sullivan, the company’s co-founder and chief executive.

Then, in November 2020, notices declaring their product unsafe were published, he said.

“If their goal was to destroy Kytch, they succeeded,” Mr O’Sullivan said.

Tim FitzGerald, chief executive of the Middleby Corporation, owner of the Taylor company, denied that was the goal.

“We are not in business to put other companies out of business,” he said. “The product has not been tested or validated in conjunction with any Taylor machine food safety protocols.”

This month, the founders of Kytch filed a lawsuit against McDonald’s in the US District Court in Delaware, seeking $900 million in damages. Ms Nelson and Mr O’Sullivan say the number reflects the damage and what their business would have been worth had McDonald’s not scared off current and potential customers with the alarming notices.

McDonald’s said Kytch’s claims were “baseless”.

“McDonald’s owes it to our customers, crew and franchisees to maintain our rigorous safety standards and to work with fully vetted suppliers in this pursuit,” the company said in a statement this week.

Kytch said that at the same time McDonald’s tried to undermine the product, the chain and Taylor held regular meetings with franchise owners who bought Kytch’s program to figure out how to copy the technology, according to the lawsuit. Kytch sued Taylor separately in Alameda County Superior Court in California.

Last week, a judge in that court denied Kytch’s injunction against Taylor, who is developing a similar product. The judge, Michael Markman, said there was no evidence that Taylor’s system “was built with or incorporates a Kytch trade secret.”

Do you want conversation? Yes. How’s it going? I say it’s excellent, it’s hot.

“We are still very early in the case, and we can’t wait to see what the evidence reveals,” said Daniel Watkins, lawyer for Ms Nelson and Mr O’Sullivan.

McDonald’s ice cream comes from the Taylor C602 model, a combination shake-and-soft-serve freezer with a touchscreen that’s supposed to allow employees to quickly fill dessert orders.

Other Taylor models are used at Wendy’s and Burger King establishments and in ice cream shops across the country. But when the machines stop working at McDonald’s, they trigger particularly strong emotions in disappointed customers.

There’s even an online map and app, McBroken.com, that aims to give McDonald’s customers a real-time look at locations nationwide that have broken ice cream machines. (As of Thursday morning, more than 22% of McDonald’s locations in New York City had broken ice cream makers.)

When the machines turn 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 Taylor-authorized technicians to fix the problem, usually at a cost of hundreds of dollars per visit, O’Sullivan said.

Darcy Bretz, a spokeswoman for Middleby, says the machines come with user manuals that explain the error codes.

Mr FitzGerald says the machines have to be shut down all day for routine cleaning and maintenance.

“It can make the machine look like it’s broken down,” he said.

Mr FitzGerald said the Taylor ice cream machines could operate 24 hours a day and had an average lifespan of 16 years. Maintaining them is much cheaper than replacing them, he said.

In a statement, McDonald’s, who laughed at the reputation of his machinessaid the company has begun offering new training resources for crew members and is performing regular maintenance on its machinery.

The complaints, however, led the Federal Trade Commission to start asking 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 commission had not contacted Middleby.

Betsy Lordan, spokeswoman for the commission, declined to comment on the issues with the machines.

“We don’t comment unless we file a complaint,” she said.

David Kass, a former commission economist and clinical professor at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, said the agency gets involved when there are both many complaints about a product and “sufficient substance” to complaints. .

Professor Kass said he was puzzled that McDonald’s had gone so long without finding a permanent solution for its ice cream machines.

“Customers, if they’re disappointed often enough, will go elsewhere,” he said.

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.

Since 2021, 25 states have introduced similar bills, but New York’s legislation has grown in popularity, said state senator Kevin Thomas, one of the main sponsors of the bill whose district includes parts of Nassau County.

The legislation passed the state Senate last year, he said, making it the first of its kind to cleanse a legislative chamber. He was blocked in the Assembly, Mr Thomas said.

He said there had been strong lobbying from manufacturers against the bill, but he hoped consumer demands would outweigh that resistance.

“For a faster McFlurry,” Mr. Thomas said, “you have to pass this bill.”

Kirsten Noyes contributed to the research.

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