How McDonald's keeps getting embarrassed by an engineer's little app

Customers are annoyed, and an app shows them how annoyed they should be. And now there's a lawsuit.

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Welcome to maybe ice cream, maybe not.

Screenshot by ZDNet

Big companies sometimes tell themselves that little things don't matter.

But then the little things become bigger things, and it becomes too late.

For the longest time, McDonald's has had a little problem: its wonderful ice cream machines don't always work. Or, more precisely, aren't always working. 

Many say they break down too often. Some claim they're too difficult to clean, so harassed employees simply don't clean them and shut them down instead. And there's an app that keeps ribbing McDonald's about the whole thing. (More on that later.)

You'd think a vast corporation like McDonald's would get around to doing something about the ice cream machines. Those McFlurrys are really very good.

Instead, the problem has persisted for years, and now the company is being sued by a startup called Kytch. For an icy $900 million.

Kytch accuses McDonald's of not doing enough to maintain these machines, instead offloading a service contract to the Taylor Company, which also happens to be McDonald's commercial kitchen provider.

A simple solution? Or a complicated plot?

Kytch, you see, believes it has a simple tech solution -- so simple that it's called the Kytch Solution. This, Kytch claims, "allows customers to monitor and control soft-serve machines remotely."

"Customers" being franchise owners, that is.

How does this little thing work? You'll be aghast to hear it's not complex.

In Kytch's (lawyers') words: "The Kytch Solution retrieves data from McDonald's soft-serve machines, displays it on Kytch's user-friendly interface, and adjusts settings hidden deep in the machines, which can prevent outages before the machines can detect an error."

Kytch claims McDonald's and Taylor have spent 20 years failing to develop an adequate IoT solution for this truly irritating problem.

Some of Kytch's accusations make for digestion-threatening reading. Sample: "McDonald's and Taylor held bi-weekly meetings devoted to copying Kytch's technology from the Kytch Trial participants."

And that's one of the milder allegations. 

I'm confused. Why wouldn't McDonald's want to bathe in the Kytch Solution if it helps sell more ice cream and makes customers love the brand more?

Well, Kytch accuses McDonald's of telling its franchisees that the Kytch Solution contravened the machines' warranties -- and even got its creamy hands on confidential information.

A McFlurry of dark comments

I asked McDonald's for the company's view of Kytch's accusations and its technology. I received a rather dark statement.

"McDonald's owes it to our customers, crew and franchisees to maintain our rigorous safety standards and work with fully vetted suppliers in that pursuit," said the company.

Which suggests McDonald's believes there's something unsafe about the Kytch Solution. Could it be that McDonald's fears the remote access IoT could somehow harm restaurant employees?

McDonald's didn't stop there. Its spokesperson continued: "Kytch's claims are meritless, and we'll respond to the complaint accordingly."

That doesn't sound friendly, does it?

But it appears that some McDonald's franchisees thought they'd try the Kytch Solution. Indeed, the National Owners Association, representing many franchisees, endorsed it.

To which Kytch countered that McDonald's has allegedly conspired with the Taylor Company, besmirched the Kytch name and ruined its business.

Egg McMuffin on your face, McDonald's?

Who am I to discuss the legal merits? But I'll happily discuss customer dissatisfaction and corporate embarrassment.

This issue has been a real irritant for customers for far too long. It certainly looks as if McDonald's ice cream machines don't work very well and don't get maintained very well. 

Indeed, those ice cream machines have become a source of pained humor.

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A couple of years ago, I wrote about Rashiq Zahid. He's an engineer who was so fascinated by the plight of McDonald's ice cream machines that, for a little fun, he created McBroken.

This blessedly simple app tracks which McDonald's restaurant is enduring a broken ice cream machine. All over America.

McBroken says that around 10% of McDonald's ice cream machines are out of service at any given time.

If 10% of iPhones weren't working at any one time, do you think Apple would quickly find a solution?

As I write, McBroken says more than 20% of the McDonald's ice cream machines in New York aren't working. That's more than a slight issue. Larger cities such as LA, Dallas and Houston are suffering somewhere between a 10-15% outage rate.

Some might wonder, then, why McDonald's didn't work with Kytch -- or even buy the company -- if its solution is so clever. McDonald's has recently enjoyed buying clever little tech companies and seeing how their tech can, for example, really speed up the drive-thru.

Perhaps the burger chain, which surely has fine lawyers, will soon express more fully its problem with Kytch and its Solution.

Currently, though, here is the terrible triumvirate of bad PR, unhappy customers and a lawsuit. Actually, talking of bad PR, McBroken now has a sponsor. At the top of the app are the words: "Dont Get McShammed."

These words were placed there in honor of, oh, Jack In The Box.

Well, at least it wasn't Burger King.

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