Is the FTC investigating why McDonald's McFlurry machines are not working?

Amy Sancetta

It seems extreme for a governmental agency to get involved when some soft serve ice cream machines stop working on a regular basis but it appears that’s where we are now. Customers are complaining that McDonald’s McFlurry machines are often not working when they place an order for one. Is it simply an employee training issue or might it be a case of corporate espionage?

Soft serve ice cream machines are notorious for being a pain to keep running. McDonald’s has had its share of problems through the years. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has opened a preliminary investigation into the complaints. Earlier this summer the FTC sent a letter to franchisees asking about how the company reviews suppliers and equipment, including the soft-serve ice cream machines. Apparently, that is as far as the process has gotten. McDonald’s denies it is under investigation by the FTC.

“Intrinsic to the interest in our soft serve machines is our fans’ love of McDonald’s iconic McFlurry desserts and shakes. 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. McDonald’s has no reason to believe we are the focus of an FTC investigation,” a spokesperson told Insider.

The machines have to be cleaned each night and it involves a process that lasts up to four hours.

Owners of McDonald’s outlets have long complained the devices are overly complicated and their breakdowns hard to fix. The machines require a nightly automated heat-cleaning cycle that can last up to four hours to destroy bacteria. The cleaning cycle can fail, making the machines unusable until a repair technician can get them going again, owners say.

McDonald’s said it understands the frustrations and has a team to working on it. The company said it is introducing a variety of solutions including new training for crew members and regular maintenance checkups.

Some franchise owners are paying to train their staff on how to fix the machines. The primary manufacturer of the machines, Taylor Commerical Foodservice LLC, says the problem is that there is a lack of knowledge about the equipment.

”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. 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.”

Enter a couple of entrepreneurs who began offering a device to alert owners of a breakdown.

Two years ago, a firm called Kytch Inc., started by two accountants turned frozen-yogurt-machine inventors, began offering a device to mount on the ice cream machines to alert owners about a breakdown. The device sends out real-time text and email alerts that can prevent damage to machines, the company says.

One selling point: Its warnings are in clear English. The Taylor machines’ own user messages, according to Kytch, are on the order of: “ERROR: XSndhUIF LHPR>45F 1HR LPROD too VISC.”

Taylor said an explanation of error codes is in machine manuals. “There is no reason for us to purposely design our equipment to be confusing or hard to repair or hurt our operators,” the Taylor representative said.

At the peak, McDonald’s owners in 30 states used Kytch’s breakdown-spotter, the startup company says. McDonald’s told franchisees late last year the devices aren’t sanctioned and said they potentially pose a safety hazard, which Kytch denies. McDonald’s said it is developing its own smart device for the shake machines.

It’s like what you hear from a car dealer when you purchase a new car – if you don’t bring the car into a certified shop for repairs, or do it on your own, the repair won’t be covered under the manufacturer’s warranty. McDonald’s told those using Kytch’s devices that they aren’t sanctioned and may even be a safety hazard to discourage use. Kytch smells a possible case of corporate espionage. The plot thickens.

Kytch fired back in May with a lawsuit accusing Taylor, a repair company authorized to work on Taylor machines and a McDonald’s franchisee of conspiring to replicate Kytch’s technology. The complaint, which is pending, alleged that Taylor gained access to Kytch’s device after the franchisee brought his machine to the repair company with the device mounted on it.“This is a case about corporate espionage and the extreme steps one manufacturer has taken to conceal and protect a multimillion-dollar repair racket,” attorneys for Kytch wrote in the complaint in California Superior Court in Alameda County. Taylor denied it had a copy of Kytch’s device or sought to steal technology, saying in a court filing: “This is a case of a hacker—Kytch—incredibly accusing the hacked—Taylor—of theft.”

Was it hacking or was it seeing an opportunity and taking the challenge? That’s what the lawsuit will settle. The lawsuit names a man in Humboldt, Tennessee who says he’s a Kytch fan and wasn’t after the intellectual property. “I supported and encouraged it being approved by McDonald’s,” he wrote in a legal response.

Kytch co-founder Jeremy O’Sullivan says Taylor is infringing on McDonald’s franchisees’ rights to repair their ice cream machines. Taylor, in response, says that isn’t true. Owners are allowed to repair their equipment but the warranty is invalidated if they fix it on their own.

The FTC is investigating device-repair restrictions, not just on ice cream machines but on other items, too. The Biden administration is making the investigations a thing on everything from phones to tractors. Democrats love a nanny state which dictates everything in life, including how you repair an ice cream machine. It’s likely little more than a case of an over-engineered machine in the case of the McDonald’s ice cream machines. You have to admit, though, that the possibility of corporate espionage adds a little twist to the story. Next time you order a milkshake or McFlurry and are told the machine is out of order, you’ll know the backstory.

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