They Hacked McDonalds Ice Cream Machines—and Started a Cold War

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Video Taylor mcdonalds ice cream machine

Of all the mysteries and injustices of the McDonald’s ice cream machine, the one that Jeremy O’Sullivan insists you understand first is its secret passcode.

Press the cone icon on the screen of the Taylor C602 digital ice cream machine, he explains, then tap the buttons that show a snowflake and a milkshake to set the digits on the screen to 5, then 2, then 3, then 1. After that precise series of no fewer than 16 button presses, a menu magically unlocks. Only with this cheat code can you access the machine’s vital signs: everything from the viscosity setting for its milk and sugar ingredients to the temperature of the glycol flowing through its heating element to the meanings of its many sphinxlike error messages.

“No one at McDonald’s or Taylor will explain why there’s a secret, undisclosed menu,” O’Sullivan wrote in one of the first, cryptic text messages I received from him earlier this year.

As O’Sullivan says, this menu isn’t documented in any owner’s manual for the Taylor digital ice cream machines that are standard equipment in more than 13,000 McDonald’s restaurants across the US and tens of thousands more worldwide. And this opaque user-unfriendliness is far from the only problem with the machines, which have gained a reputation for being absurdly fickle and fragile. Thanks to a multitude of questionable engineering decisions, they’re so often out of order in McDonald’s restaurants around the world that they’ve become a full-blown social media meme. (Take a moment now to search Twitter for “broken McDonald’s ice cream machine” and witness thousands of voices crying out in despair.)

But after years of studying this complex machine and its many ways of failing, O’Sullivan remains most outraged at this notion: That the food-equipment giant Taylor sells the McFlurry-squirting devices to McDonald’s restaurant owners for about $18,000 each, and yet it keeps the machines’ inner workings secret from them. What’s more, Taylor maintains a network of approved distributors that charge franchisees thousands of dollars a year for pricey maintenance contracts, with technicians on call to come and tap that secret passcode into the devices sitting on their counters.

The secret menu reveals a business model that goes beyond a right-to-repair issue, O’Sullivan argues. It represents, as he describes it, nothing short of a milkshake shakedown: Sell franchisees a complicated and fragile machine. Prevent them from figuring out why it constantly breaks. Take a cut of the distributors’ profit from the repairs. “It’s a huge money maker to have a customer that’s purposefully, intentionally blind and unable to make very fundamental changes to their own equipment,” O’Sullivan says. And McDonald’s presides over all of it, he says, insisting on loyalty to its longtime supplier. (Resist the McDonald’s monarchy on decisions like equipment, and the corporation can end a restaurant’s lease on the literal ground beneath it, which McDonald’s owns under its franchise agreement.)

So two years ago, after their own strange and painful travails with Taylor’s devices, 34-year-old O’Sullivan and his partner, 33-year-old Melissa Nelson, began selling a gadget about the size of a small paperback book, which they call Kytch. Install it inside your Taylor ice cream machine and connect it to your Wi-Fi, and it essentially hacks your hostile dairy extrusion appliance and offers access to its forbidden secrets. Kytch acts as a surveillance bug inside the machine, intercepting and eavesdropping on communications between its components and sending them to a far friendlier user interface than the one Taylor intended. The device not only displays all of the machine’s hidden internal data but logs it over time and even suggests troubleshooting solutions, all via the web or an app.

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