The hacking saga of McDonald’s ice cream machine has a new twist

six months ago A small startup called Kytch has sued Taylor, the maker of McDonald’s best known for its multi-billion dollar broken ice cream machines. Over the years, Kytch has sold a small device that hacks these ice cream machines, allowing McDonald’s owners to better diagnose their illnesses and make them work more reliably — only to discover, according to Kytch’s legal complaint, that Taylor conspired to copy the machine and sabotage her business.

Kytch’s lawsuit has now exposed another side of that story: Taylor’s own internal communications. Recently released court documents appear to show that Taylor executives viewed Kytch as a business threat and worked to copy the features of its machines into a competing product — all while still failing to cure McDonald’s ice cream headaches.

In the discovery phase of Kytch’s lawsuit in May, Taylor had to submit more than 800 pages of emails and internal presentations outlining her approach to Kytch. They show how, contrary to Taylor’s previous claims to WIRED, the company has closely scrutinized and sought to mimic Kytch’s specific features. The emails also show that McDonald’s, not Taylor, at some points led efforts to ban restaurants from using Kytch’s tools.

“There was a concerted effort to not only get our machines and copy them and keep track of everything we were doing, but also, when it reached a critical mass, to actually put us out of action,” says Kytch founder Melissa Nelson.

The still-unfolding battle began with Kytch’s attempt, starting in 2019, to build and sell a device that could intercept data on Taylor C602 ice cream machines used by McDonald’s franchisees. McDonald’s ice cream machines were broken in about 10 percent of its restaurants, based on data collected by ice cream machine tracking service McBroken, and McDonald’s franchisees told WIRED that a better diagnosis can lead to faster repairs. (Certain regions often have higher rates of non-order machines: McBrooken found that McDonald’s ice cream machines in New York City were out of order 20 to 40 percent of the time over the past week alone, for example.) The Wall Street Journal I reported in September that even the Federal Trade Commission had recently asked McDonald’s franchisees about frequent failures of ice cream machines.

McDonald’s responded to Kytch’s increased sales by sending a note in the fall of 2020 to all franchisees warning them not to use the machine, stating it posed a physical safety risk, voiding warranties for Taylor’s machines, and accessing “property statements.” The memo recommended upgrading to a new internet-connected machine called Taylor Shake Sundae Connectivity. So far, this next-generation machine has yet to hit the market after limited testing. Kytch calls McDonald’s letter “defamatory,” claiming it wrecked the company and left franchisees without repairs for their machines. Constantly baked ice cream.

Kytch responded by suing Taylor in May, as well as a Taylor distributor called TFG and a McDonald’s franchise named Tyler Gamble, who allegedly granted Taylor and TFG access to Kytch’s machine. The lawsuit alleged that by doing so, Gamble had breached Kytch’s contract, and that Taylor had misappropriated her trade secrets. Kytch’s founders told WIRED last spring that they believed Taylor had gone so far as to hire a private investigator company to try and surreptitiously purchase Kytch’s device in an effort to analyze and copy it.

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