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McDonald’s Perpetually Broken Ice Cream Machines Are the Gold Standard of Late-Stage Capitalism

Customers and franchisees alike are being iced out by the fast-food chain’s refusal to fix their McFlurry machines

McDonald’s is the world’s largest fast-food restaurant chain (actually, Starbucks is bigger, but they’re technically a coffee shop). They’ve sold well over 300 billion hamburgers. They earned more than $19 billion in 2020 alone. And yet, they’ve consistently failed at the simple task of providing patrons with McFlurries, an item that’s been on their menu since 1997. As you probably already know, the blame has always landed on their allegedly fussy ice-cream machines.

Franchisees, who pay McDonald’s an initial fee of $45,000 and need “a minimum of $500,000 of non-borrowed personal resources” to even be considered for a franchise, have long denounced the contraptions, which cause lost revenue when they break down. One especially frustrated customer went so far as to reverse-engineer the McDonald’s app to create a map of every broken appliance in the U.S. — more than 10 percent of all McDonald’s ice-cream machines are down as I’m typing this, which is apparently standard. And now, the Federal Trade Commission is stepping in, a move seemingly related to President Biden’s “right to repair” orders, which aim to increase enforcement against manufacturers that block businesses (and others) from repairing broken products themselves.

But feeble as they may be, McDonald’s ice-cream machines are a mere distraction. The real problem at play here is late-stage capitalism, a system that allows McDonald’s and its corporate chum to get away with taking shortcuts while franchise owners, employees and consumers deal with the fallout.

It’s no secret that McDonald’s is a beacon of capitalism. They’re focused entirely on profit. They prioritize bulk ingredients and foods that are cheap to make at the cost of our planet and local food needs. They keep wages as low as possible — while they recently announced a wage increase, it only affects five percent of its locations, meaning many employees are still stuck at minimum wage, which can be as low as $7.25 an hour. McDonald’s even once acknowledged that its employees require a second job to survive. Moreover, they drain communities in need of better opportunities.

And what do we get in return? French fries with a side of heart disease? An empty cup where a McFlurry should be? 

McDonald’s ice-cream machines are manufactured by a company called Taylor, a long-term partner that also provides appliances to other fast-food chains, like Wendy’s and In-N-Out (interestingly, their machines are always working). Despite needing nightly, automated four-hour cleanings and constantly breaking down, Taylor’s machines are required by McDonald’s corporate, meaning franchise owners can’t go elsewhere for their frozen dessert needs.

When problems arise, which happens all the time, they’re notoriously impossible to diagnose — the machines basically spit out unintelligible code — meaning franchisees often need to call in Taylor’s authorized technicians. This costs franchise owners hundreds, if not thousands of dollars each time it happens. Tellingly, around a quarter of Taylor’s revenue comes from service and repairs.

McDonald’s isn’t without other options: A teenie company named Kytch released a device in 2019 that allowed McDonald’s staff to easily make necessary repairs to their ice-cream machines and was a momentary godsend for franchisees who were tired of bearing the cost of Taylor’s technicians. But naturally, McDonald’s and Taylor quickly blacklisted Kytch’s product from the stores. Instead of accepting a solution that franchisees, employees and consumers benefit from, they’re fighting tooth and nail to maintain their ice-cream machine monopoly — Kytch filed a lawsuit early this year arguing that Taylor stole its trade secrets, suggesting that the ice-cream giant may be looking for their own way to “address” the problem.

In other words, Taylor has long been actively ignoring problems that cost McDonald’s franchise owners money and cause customers and employees frustration. They’ve continuously sold machines that are seemingly made for the purpose of pulling in unnecessary repair fees. And McDonald’s couldn’t care less, because they’re not the ones paying; local franchisees and people craving ice cream are.

It’s all evidence that McDonald’s — a company that, if capitalism really does breed innovation, should theoretically be able to consistently fulfill its promise to serve an item that’s been on its menu for over two decades — seemingly doesn’t give a damn about its people or its quality. In fact, under a system that prioritizes capital alone, all McDonald’s appears to care about is protecting their fellow capitalist overlords, keeping control of the market and counting dollar bills.

I guess, though, that’s to be expected of capitalism, where being given the ice cream you’re anticipating and willing to pay for is too much to ask for from the biggest, most lucrative fast-food restaurant ever.