You might be familiar with the McFlurry machine as “the way you get a milkshake at McDonald’s” or, more typically, “the machine that’s always broken, preventing you from getting a milkshake at McDonald’s.” But according to a new report, the Federal Trade Commission is familiar with the McFlurry machine as “potentially in violation of antitrust law,” which is pretty cold — colder than the frozen treats the machine serves up, you might say.
On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the FTC sent letters to McDonald’s franchisees earlier this summer seeking to get to the root of why those newfangled machines are always broken. As Gizmodo previously reported, the perpetual brokenness of the machines has drawn the attention of consumers, who have gone so far as to draw up petitions protesting their lack of functionality, as well as entrepreneurs, who went out of their way to design a diagnostic tool to help franchise owners repair the machines themselves.
To backtrack a bit, McFlurry machines — manufactured by a brand called Taylor — are notoriously fussy. They have to be able to withstand both the cold temperatures needed to keep the ice cream frozen and the heating cycles that blast them during the cleaning process. Despite the fact that they account for about 60% of sales of desserts at McDonald’s in the U.S., according to a consumer survey by research firm Technomic Inc., they’re also not intuitive at all and packed with what some have interpreted as deliberately janky code, which is why some franchise owners have such a difficult time getting them back up and running again.
The unreliability of the machines is what prompted a company called Kytch to step in and develop a diagnostic tool specifically designed to help McDonald’s franchise owners fix their own McFlurry machines. But after Kytch co-founder Jeremy O’Sullivan accused Taylor of infringing on McDonald’s franchisees’ rights to repair their own McFlurry machines and intellectual property theft in a lawsuit, the FTC reportedly stepped in.
According to the Journal, who spoke to one person familiar with the FTC’s conversations with franchise owners, the agency is in the early stages of its investigation, and has thus far inquired about “how McDonald’s reviews suppliers and equipment, including the ice cream machines, and how often restaurant owners are allowed to work on their own machines.”
In its letter to franchisees, the FTC reiterated that “the existence of a preliminary investigation does not indicate the FTC or its staff have found any wrongdoing,” meaning that McDonald’s isn’t in trouble just yet.
The investigation comes after the Biden administration issued a sweeping executive order in July aimed at examining device repair restrictions across the board, including in the agriculture, healthcare, shipping, transportation, and technology sectors.