Jun 8, 2022
A fix for McDonald’s soft-serve machines Transcript
Tech startup Kytch developed a device that helped McDonald’s franchises get their machines back online. And that’s when the fight over ice cream began to really heat up. Read the transcript here.
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Speaker 1: (00:00)
You say you’re in the mood for a little ice cream? David Pogue may be able to help. May be able to help.
David Pogue: (00:09)
You’ll have no trouble buying burgers at McDonald’s, but ice cream is another story.
Speaker 3: (00:16)
Hi, welcome to McDonald’s. How can I help you?
David Pogue: (00:18)
Can I just get an ice cream cone?
Speaker 3: (00:19)
I’m sorry, we actually don’t have any ice cream at the moment.
David Pogue: (00:21)
Okay, thanks a lot.
Speaker 3: (00:22)
David Pogue: (00:23)
Okay, bye-bye. So how many McDonald’s ice cream machines would you guess are broken right now? 2%, 4%? This past week, 19% of them were down in San Diego, 28% in New York City. That’s according to mcbroken.com, a website designed to track the machines in real time. Broken McDonald’s ice cream machines have become a national punchline.
Trevor Noah: (00:48)
I feel like they should just make the machine one of their mascots. You know, just be like, “Hi kids. I’m McFlurry the ice cream machine that’s too shit to work.”
David Pogue: (00:57)
McDonald’s says that rumors of their breakdowns are greatly exaggerated, but even they have poked fun at the problem. In 2020, the company tweeted, “We have a joke about our soft serve machine, but we’re worried it won’t work.” For decades, Illinois based Taylor was the exclusive supplier of soft serve and shake machines to McDonald’s.
Jeremy O’Sullivan: (01:18)
This is very similar to the McDonald’s ice cream machine they use in the US.
David Pogue: (01:22)
Jeremy O’Sullivan got to know these machines in 2011 when he and his partner Melissa Nelson founded a line of frozen yogurt kiosks. They call the Taylor machines finicky and overengineered.
Jeremy O’Sullivan: (01:34)
Okay, what about this? BRL greater than 41F after SL. Just tell me what BRL means.
David Pogue: (01:43)
Now, just because the machine is down, doesn’t mean it’s actually broken. It might just be going through it’s mandatory daily four hour pasteurizing sequence.
Jeremy O’Sullivan: (01:53)
And each step in that process has to be done and executed in a certain amount of time or the whole thing fails, and it needs to restart.
David Pogue: (02:01)
I come in the morning and it would say what?
Jeremy O’Sullivan: (02:03)
Heat cycle fail.
David Pogue: (02:04)
O’Sullivan even claims that the fragile design is intentional so Taylor can rake in repair fees.
Jeremy O’Sullivan: (02:10)
A McDonald’s employee is supposed to pick up the phone, ring, ring, call a Taylor technician, “Hey, please come out. We really want to pay Taylor another $500 for repairs.”
David Pogue: (02:20)
Well, that may not be especially true. Taylor declined an on camera interview, but said by email Taylor does not make any money off of servicing its machines. All repairs to Taylor machines are handled by a network of independent distributors. Although that may not be completely true either. Taylor charges those technicians for training costs, and about 25% of the company’s revenue comes from selling replacement parts. What did you guys come up with that could help with this situation?
Speaker 8: (02:51)
We created Kytch, which is a little tiny computer that attaches to the front panel of the machine, and it decrypts very complicated messages that your typical employee may not understand.
David Pogue: (03:03)
Oh, this is it right here.
Jeremy O’Sullivan: (03:04)
David Pogue: (03:05)
So this would say HPR greater than 41 SL. What would the Kytch message say that’s more helpful than that?
Jeremy O’Sullivan: (03:14)
Maybe something as simple as like this, this hopper heated up because you left the lid off.
David Pogue: (03:22)
The Kytch device also offers some remote control.
Jeremy O’Sullivan: (03:25)
This machine turns off, you’re at home, Kytch lets you know.
David Pogue: (03:29)
From your phone you could restart the machine.
Jeremy O’Sullivan: (03:31)
David Pogue: (03:32)
The founders say the Kytch add on was a hit with the McDonald’s owners and even got a thumbs up from the head of the franchise owner’s equipment team.
Speaker 9: (03:39)
And I really think that this device can reduce complexity in your restaurants and help drive cash flow by having our machines up.
David Pogue: (03:46)
But unbeknownst to Kytch, Taylor had been developing its own similar device, and was studying the Kytch to mimic its features. One Taylor executive emailed, “So how can we do the same thing Kytch is doing?” Then in late 2020, McDonald’s emailed the owners of all 13,000 franchises.
Jeremy O’Sullivan: (04:06)
It said don’t use Kytch.
Speaker 8: (04:08)
It essentially said that Kytch could cause serious human injury.
David Pogue: (04:13)
How would that happen?
Speaker 8: (04:15)
Well, one it’s completely untrue.
David Pogue: (04:19)
The memo suggested that the Kytch remote control feature could make the machine start running while someone was cleaning or maintaining it, endangering employees’ fingers. But that may not exactly be true either.
Speaker 8: (04:31)
All these dangerous parts that are inside the machine, when you remove the door, Kytch can’t operate, nothing can happen.
Jeremy O’Sullivan: (04:39)
The only danger that Kytch ever proposed was to Taylor’s bottom line.
David Pogue: (04:44)
After the McDonald’s memo business dried up and Kytch shut down. The founders are now suing Taylor and McDonald’s for millions of dollars. Reverse engineering is not illegal. I mean it’s dirty pool, but it’s not illegal.
Jeremy O’Sullivan: (04:59)
There is a bunch of stuff in here that is super illegal. You can’t say something is dangerous when it’s not dangerous.
Speaker 8: (05:07)
So it’s mainly about false advertisement, interfering with our business expectancy.
David Pogue: (05:13)
McDonald’s also declined an interview, but said by email that the Kytch device is unauthorized equipment, which Kytch never submitted to McDonald’s for safety testing. McDonald’s calls the lawsuit meritless, and Taylor says it’s built on false allegations. But until the lawsuits conclude, Taylor has put its own device on ice. So for now we can all look forward to more moments like these.
Speaker 10: (05:38)
Why? The ice cream machine is always down.
Jeremy O’Sullivan: (05:41)
You know, I think there’s an illusion that you just need to work really hard and build a great mouse trap, and take it from people who built a better mouse trap and were naive enough to think, “Oh my gosh, they’re going to love our solution.” Not the case.