Andy Greenberg wrote an article for Wired titled They Hacked McDonald’s Ice Cream Machines—and Started a Cold War (April 20, 2021).

« Of all the mysteries and injustices of the McDonald’s ice cream machine, the one that Jeremy O’Sullivan insists you understand first is its secret passcode… the Taylor C602 digital ice cream machine… Only with this cheat code can you access the machine’s vital signs »

« And this opaque user-unfriendliness is far from the only problem with the machines, which have gained a reputation for being absurdly fickle and fragile. »

« But after years of studying this complex machine and its many ways of failing, O’Sullivan remains most outraged at this notion: That the food-equipment giant Taylor sells the McFlurry-squirting devices to McDonald’s restaurant owners for about $18,000 each, and yet it keeps the machines’ inner workings secret from them. What’s more, Taylor maintains a network of approved distributors that charge franchisees thousands of dollars a year for pricey maintenance contracts, with technicians on call to come and tap that secret passcode into the devices sitting on their counters. »

« The secret menu reveals a business model that goes beyond a right-to-repair issue, O’Sullivan argues. It represents, as he describes it, nothing short of a milkshake shakedown: Sell franchisees a complicated and fragile machine. Prevent them from figuring out why it constantly breaks. Take a cut of the distributors’ profit from the repairs. “It’s a huge money maker to have a customer that’s purposefully, intentionally blind and unable to make very fundamental changes to their own equipment,” O’Sullivan says. And McDonald’s presides over all of it, he says, insisting on loyalty to its longtime supplier. (Resist the McDonald’s monarchy on decisions like equipment, and the corporation can end a restaurant’s lease on the literal ground beneath it, which McDonald’s owns under its franchise agreement.) »

« So two years ago, after their own strange and painful travails with Taylor’s devices, 34-year-old O’Sullivan and his partner, 33-year-old Melissa Nelson, began selling a gadget about the size of a small paperback book, which they call Kytch. Install it inside your Taylor ice cream machine and connect it to your Wi-Fi, and it essentially hacks your hostile dairy extrusion appliance and offers access to its forbidden secrets. Kytch acts as a surveillance bug inside the machine, intercepting and eavesdropping on communications between its components and sending them to a far friendlier user interface than the one Taylor intended. The device not only displays all of the machine’s hidden internal data but logs it over time and even suggests troubleshooting solutions, all via the web or an app. »

« Just as O’Sullivan and Nelson’s ice-cream-machine-hacking gadget Kytch began to gain customers, McDonald’s sent its franchisees a warning that Kytch breached the machines’ “confidential information” and could cause “serious human injury,” tanking the couple’s startup. »

« (McDonald’s agreement with franchisees also allows them to use an actual Italian machine, sold by Bologna-based Carpigiani, that McD Truth describes as much better designed. But given that its replacement parts can take a week to arrive from Italy, far fewer restaurants buy it.) »

« during “shamrock season,” when McDonald’s offers a St. Patrick’s Day–themed mint-green milkshake that boosts shake sales as much as tenfold. “Shamrock season is a big fucking deal,” O’Sullivan emphasizes. »

« Plenty of companies have fought against their own customers’ right-to-repair movements, from John Deere’s efforts to prevent farmers from accessing their own tractors’ software to Apple’s efforts to limit who can fix an iPhone. But few of those companies’ products need to be repaired quite so often as McDonald’s ice cream machines. When WIRED reached out to McDonald’s for this story, the company didn’t even attempt to defend the machines’ shambolic performance. “We understand it’s frustrating for customers when they come to McDonald’s for a frozen treat and our shake machines are down—and we’re committed to doing better,” a spokesperson wrote. »

« When Kytch launched in April of [2019], Nelson drove around the Bay Area looking for any restaurant that used a Taylor machine, pitching the franchisees on LinkedIn, and offering a six-month free trial before a $10-a-month subscription kicked in. »

« Meanwhile, many McDonald’s owners were paying thousands of dollars a month to Taylor distributors in service fees, often for making simple changes locked behind that menu. So they added a feature to Kytch called Kytch Assist that could automatically detect some of the machine’s common pitfalls as they happened, and tweak those hidden variables to prevent some of the mishaps before they occurred. »

« Another franchisee’s technician told me that, despite Kytch nearly doubling its prices over the past two years and adding a $250 activation fee, it still saves the franchisee “easily thousands of dollars a month.” »

« Kytch’s device, built around a Raspberry Pi minicomputer, is designed to be installed inside a Taylor ice cream machine, where it intercepts its data and relays it over Wi-Fi to an app or web interface. »

« As word of mouth spread through McDonald’s franchisees, Kytch’s sales began to double every quarter. O’Sullivan and Nelson hired a salesperson as their third full-time employee. By the fall of 2020, more than 500 of their devices had infiltrated the innards of Taylor’s ice cream machines around the world, and based on their trial subscriptions they projected 500 more by the end of the year. But the ice cream empire they were taking on was about to strike back. »

« Within two days of Kytch’s late April 2019 launch, O’Sullivan and Nelson noticed that an executive they knew at Taylor had placed an order for a device. So they wrote to their Taylor contact, politely asking what Taylor’s stance was on their product and what the company intended to do with it. When they got no response, they canceled the order and refunded Taylor’s money. »

« A couple of months later, they saw another strange order, this time from someone at Taylor’s outside law firm, Brinks Gilson. Recognizing the firm’s name, they canceled that sale too. Over the next months, the suspicious buying attempts continued. While most franchisees would order Kytch sent to their restaurant, these supposed customers were asking for them to be sent to home addresses. »

« Then, on November 2, the axe fell. Kytch’s shocked salesperson forwarded Nelson and O’Sullivan an email that McDonald’s had apparently sent to every franchisee. It warned first that installing Kytch voided Taylor machines’ warranties—a familiar threat from corporations fighting right-to-repair battles with their customers and repairers. Then it went on to state that Kytch “allows complete access to all of the equipment’s controller and confidential data” (Taylor’s and McDonald’s data, not the restaurant owner’s), that it “creates a potential very serious safety risk for the crew or technician attempting to clean or repair the machine,” and that it could cause “serious human injury.” The email included a final warning in italics and bold: “McDonald’s strongly recommends that you remove the Kytch device from all machines and discontinue use.” »

« But Kytch’s cofounders make no secret that their legal threats don’t end with those defendants. They say they intend to pursue their case as far as it leads, all the way up the McDonald’s food chain. “We’re very confident that we’ll learn everything we need to know in discovery,” O’Sullivan says forebodingly, “to hold every guilty party fully accountable.” (Update: On May 10, 2021, Kytch filed its lawsuit, arguing that Taylor and the Taylor distributor TFG stole its trade secrets and that Tyler Gamble violated a contract by giving those companies access to the Kytch device.) »

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