FTC reputedly investigating McDonald's always-broken ice cream machines

Originally published at: FTC reputedly investigating McDonald's always-broken ice cream machines | Boing Boing


This is an excellent video about it.

TL;DW: McDonalds mandates that all franchises use an exact, specific model. This model is similar to other models used by other fast food places like Burger King and Wendys. Both those other places allow a choice in which model the franchises use.

McDonalds insist on only a single model, and so the company makes it purposefully unreliable, and with near zero ability for the user to figure out why it is not working, and the company that makes them makes bank on service calls. There is even a third party who was trying to make a device to decode error messages it was getting out of hand.


His videos are usually really good, but there is just something about him that turns me off. Can’t put my finger on it. I’d like these all a lot better if they were Vox. :slightly_smiling_face:

I wonder if the brokenness correlates with food deserts? I buy cones all the time in San Diego and Tijuana, and I’ve never been refused a cone.


The gist of the problem is that McDonalds corporate forces their stores through the franchise agreement to use a specific model of machine (that only McDonalds gets) and that maintenance must be performed by that company as well. That means the quality of support will depend a lot on the local support branch. If they have sufficient staff and do good work, the McDonalds in the area will more often have working machines. If the local support is poor and/or expensive, then the machines will be more likely to be broken down.

There’s a lot that can be done via training to keep the machines from getting ‘broken’, but the nature of the high turnover (resulting in poor knowledge retention) means that there isn’t likely to be someone expert on the machine to fix it without having to call in service–which the manager will want to avoid because of the cost.

So, McDonalds corporate really screwed over the franchises with this restriction. Why they would do that is up for debate. There is the arguement that they like to control the uniformity of their product so that the customer experience is nearly identical at all of their restraunts, but that’s stretching credulity for me. It very well may be that they get a kick back from the vendor and the FTC may uncover that if they look hard enough. It will be telling to see if corporate relaxes this requirement now that it’s become better known publicaly. If they do, then it would imply the “we just wanted uniformity” and if they don’t, then it leans towards the “we were getting cash on the backend” scenario.

I will admit there is something to be said for this level of uniformity. Dairy Queen doesn’t require this of their stores and the quality of product varies quite a bit from location to location. There are two by me and one has distinctly better product than the other. I’m nowhere near a golden taster, so if I can tell the difference, it must be pretty big.


That’s what I understand. It’s seen as a racket involving McDs corporate and the machine vendor (Taylor); the former requires franchisees to use the latter for repairs, which are overly expensive and involve long wait times. Recently, when someone independent came up with an alternate method to fix the machines for the franchise owners quickly, the mother company basically tried to sue the third party repair entity out of existence and penalised any franchisee who used them.


The problem is McDonalds get the money for the contract for the ice cream machines, the maintenance company gets paid each time one breaks down, the franchise holders pay for both…


Sorry, that got a little long, but I wanted to add more. The video that @Mister44 linked to talks about the ways the machines ‘break’ and a lot of them are easily avoidable while others are just stupid. The machine has two separate hoppers. They can be operated independently–one can be cleaning while the other is serving. One can be coming down in temp while the other is in service. At a high level, it’s a good design, but the devil is in the details. If one side throws an error, the whole machine locks out. One of the most common errors is to overfill one of the tanks.

Why this is a problem is interesting. To prevent the machines needing to be cleaned too often, they do some clever things. They keep track of how old the product is–it’s supposed to be used in batches. That is, you would fill a hopper with material (I don’t know what else to call it) and start a cooling cycle. The machine would then cool it down and agitate it and get it ready to serve. Once it’s been kept cold for a certain time, but there is still product in the hopper, the machine has to ‘clean’ itself. Really, it’s just repasturizing the product and using that to clean everything–this means less wasted product. The two hoppers are meant to ping-pong back and forth–one serving product while the other cleans/cools/etc.

The common error comes when you don’t use it that way. When you try to add more product to a hopper and accidentally fill it over the limit (which isn’t indicated or marked in any meaningful way). This is a violation of the protocol, but is really common (apparently). What then happens is the machine goes to do a pasturize cycle, but it can’t get the overfilled hopper to temp in the time allotted–and it throws an error shutting the whole machine off. Does it say “by any chance did you overfill the left hopper?” No, it just indicates an error state and shuts down.

If the people running the machine followed the procedure, this wouldn’t happen, but that would require training and compliance to the protocol. Good luck getting a 16 year old to do that when they’re in a hurry and don’t really care.


I didn’t see that in any of the sources I’ve seen on this. My understanding is that the franchise holders bought the machines and service from Taylor directly and that corporate wasn’t involved.

Yes, but they have to buy them, both the machines and the service as per their franchise contract. Don’t you think McD benefits somewhere from a sweet deal like that?


I think it was Taylor who went after the third party tool maker. For those who didn’t watch the video, a small company came up with a device (basically a Raspberry Pi in a special box) that installed into the ice cream machine and plugged into the service port (like the ODB2 of a car) and kept track of the status of the machine (wia a web interface) in a much more user friendly way–allowing them to keep track of the machines performance, translating cryptic error codes to human readable messages, and allowing the user to perform self-tests/clear error codes.

The little company was smart and leased the machines with a clause saying that they couldn’t be given to Taylor to look at. Taylor tried to get access to one and the little company sued, Taylor sued, etc. It’s currently down the litigation rabbit hole.

@Jeroen_Metselaa I think it’s likely that McDonalds is benefiting from the Taylor lock-in somehow, but I haven’t seen that proved yet. Maybe the FTC can do so. If they find it, I’m pretty sure that’s illegal, IANAL.


You’re right. They went after the tool maker, McD’s corporate worked the other end by punishing any franchise owner who used the product. As you note, there’s a good chance of collusion between McD’s and Taylor, which is likely why the FTC is involved at this point.


Watch them both end up guilty as hell, then get slapped with a devastating fine of one day’s profits.


I went to McD’s and ordered a burger and fries, and the meal was ruined because they were out of ice cream.


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Hey, check out the generic commenter who clearly didn’t RTFA (or watch the video). They’re cool.


My only complaint is they don’t sell cherry pies anymore. I miss those as much as I miss the lemon pies from Arthur Treacher’s.



I most certainly read the article.

But I just can’t help myself when it comes to dishing on fast food joints.

(Admittedly, I do still sometimes eat at McD’s and others when it’s convenient.)


Weird. I was thinking about Arthur Treacher’s yesterday for some reason. I realized I had never eaten there ever, was suddenly curious if they were any good.


Eh, fried fish and chips, basically. You could get a little better back in the day at Long John Silver’s, but it wasn’t as fast-food/takeaway friendly.


Come to Cleveland. We still have Arthur Treacher’s, complete with pies. https://www.officialarthurtreachers.com/