McScam: The McDonalds Ice Cream Racket

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Forget about Afghanistan, Covid, and world hunger. Let’s drill down into the real questions here at the Tycoonist: why do the McDonald’s ($MCD) ice cream machines always seem to be broken?

According to McBroken, a website that tracks both working and ‘out-of-order’ McDonald’s ice cream machines around the country (gotta love the internet), 12% of the bloody things are currently broken nationwide, including an astounding one-third of machines at New York City locations.

What the hell is going on here? On Twitter, user Jess B mused about coming up with conspiracies theories to explain the issue.

In fact, there might actually be a legit conspiracy here—one involving two scrappy entrepreneurs, alleged corporate espionage, franchisee rights, and hundreds of millions of dollars at stake.

Even the Hamburglar wouldn’t have thought of this one.

The Ferrari of Ice Cream Machines

In a Wired story earlier this year that delved into the McDonald’s ice cream saga, one franchisee described the machine as “like an Italian sports car.” But like actual sports cars, the machine—built by foodservice giant Taylor—often spends more time in the shop than on the road.

The McDonald’s soft serve machine, an $18,000 contraption officially known as the Taylor C602, employs a convoluted, 11-step daily heat treatment process to clean the inner parts. On paper, it’s supposed to save time and money. In reality, franchisees say the machine is ridiculously overengineered—some might say deliberately.

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After all, the Taylor Company holds an effective monopoly over the machines that generate 60% of McDonald’s dessert sales in the U.S. Every time a machine breaks down, franchisees are obligated to call in Taylor techs for thousands of dollars a pop.

Want to repair the machine yourself? Good luck figuring out what “ERROR: XSndhUIF LHPR>45F 1HR LPROD too VISC” means.

And this business certainly ain’t peanuts. As of three years ago, Taylor generated $315M in annual revenue. In 2018, the ice cream and frozen drink machine specialist was acquired by the Middleby Corporation ($MIDD) for $1B.

Stepping on the Little Guy

Enter Kytch, a small startup founded by a husband and wife team.

In 2019, Jeremy O’Sullivan and Melissa Nelson developed a device to monitor and diagnose problems in the Taylor machine. Unlike Taylor, Kytch sent its users alerts with messages in plain English. By 2020, Kytch had sold hundreds of their monitors to frustrated franchisees and signed them up for monthly subscriptions.

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Everything seemed to be going so well—until Taylor and McDonald’s corporate caught wind.

Taylor and McDonald’s blasted out warnings to franchisees that the devices were dangerous (there is no evidence for this) and that using them would void the machine’s warranty.

At the same time, Taylor developed a competing device similar to the Kytch. Overnight, O’Sullivan and Nelson watched their business evaporate.

The Right to Repair

Now Kytch is unleashing a McFlurry of lawsuits. Among other things, the couple alleges trade secret theft—namely, that Taylor conspired with a franchisee to acquire and reverse-engineer a Kytch device.

At this point, you might be asking yourself one question: why does any of this matter? It’s just ice cream, for God’s sake.

But seriously, there’s a lot more than soft serve at stake here.

The dispute goes directly to the “right to repair” movement centering around electronics. Like Taylor, consumer electronics producers such as Apple ($AAPL) have been accused of designing their devices so that only their own technicians can repair them.

The practice shuts out third-party repairmen, making it costly for consumers to repair their devices… and consumers are starting to call BS.

In 2020, Massachusetts voters considered a ballot initiative that would obligate automakers to make vehicle data available to independent mechanics. Despite opponents saturating the airwaves with negative ads, the measure passed by a landslide with 75% in favor.

Kytch itself just won a small victory in August when a California judge granted a restraining order against Taylor, requiring the bigger company to hand over its (allegedly) ill-gotten Kytch devices.

Even the Feds are sniffing around. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that the FTC, which holds the power to restrict unfair and unreasonable contracts, reached out to McDonald’s franchisees about the issue.

Perhaps, one day soon, we will live in a land where we can journey to the drive-thru without experiencing crushing disappointment.

Talk about changing the world.

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