Why Is the McDonald’s Ice Cream Machine Always Broken?

Anyone who has ever been to McDonald’s and tried to order ice cream is probably familiar with the ice cream machines not working. It’s so bad someone made a tracker for how many ice cream machines are broken in North America. It’s called McBroken, which hopefully makes you laugh. As of the writing of this post it’s at 12%, which is a… pretty absurd failure rate. Obviously if it weren’t an absurd failure rate it wouldn’t be a meme. If it makes you feel any better, the FTC started an investigation into McDonald’s for how bad their ice cream machines are in 2021. It’s actually not because they’re always failing—but it should address it. We’ll explain, because it will answer the question: why is the McDonald’s ice cream machine always broken?

Further Reading: What’s the Difference Between Ice Cream and Gelato?

Who Makes These Machines Anyway?

The first place to start with McDonald’s ice cream machines is probably by looking at who makes the stupid things in the first place. Luckily, it’s easy to find the supplier: The Taylor Company, who have been working with McDonald’s since 1956. Remember that McDonald’s business model is not as a franchise restaurant—they are actually a real estate company. You might be kind of familiar with this in passing if you’ve seen The Founder. When people open a McDonald’s restaurant, they don’t just pay to use the McDonald’s name, they also rent the land their restaurant is on. As a part of the franchising, McDonald’s managers are required to use specific equipment in their restaurants. Of the things they’re absolutely required to use is ice cream machines from the Taylor Company. Specifically, the Model C606 or C602. 

Well that explains it right? The Taylor Company should just make better ice cream machines, case closed. 

Except this post is only 300 words long so far, and there are more words left, so there’s more to this issue. Here’s the complicating factor: the Taylor Company doesn’t just supply McDonald’s. They supply many other companiesincluding fast food chains like Wendy’s, Burger King, Dunkin’ Donuts, Dairy Queen (!), and Jack in the Box. But there’s no Wendy’s meme about the ice cream machine being broken, neither is there one for the other franchises the Taylor Company supplies. 

The rabbit hole gets deeper.

How Taylor Makes Money

So here’s the thing about these Taylor ice cream machines. They have to be offline for about four hours per day for a heat/cleaning cycle. This way they’re clean and don’t serve you bacteria-laden ice cream. Typically this is done overnight, though the cycle fails quite often; the most common troubleshooting method is to run the cycle again, which means from the start of the day the machine will be offline for some of the opening hours.

It doesn’t help that the machines used at McDonald’s have notoriously opaque error codes. If you look at the user manual for the Model C606, you’ll see at the bottom there’s a troubleshooting guide. If you look at the remedies, they almost always lead back to “contact an authorized service technician.” Skimming through the same manual, you’ll notice something else, attempting to resolve a lot of issues on your own will void your warranty for this very expensive machine. 

Oh guess what, Taylor Company machines have a secret menu. Not the “can I get some extra drugs with my food” secret menu, but a secret self-repair menu for the ice cream machine. It’s actually nowhere in the user manual, because only Taylor technicians are supposed to know about it. So you shouldn’t be surprised that the Taylor Company hedges a good amount of its self-promotion in its service and technicians (who would have thought)? 

By the way, if you want to access the secret repair menu on the Taylor C602, press the snowflake and milkshake buttons to get 5231 on the screen. Secondary by the way, one of the easier ways to prevent the heat/cleaning cycle from failing is just to put less of the ice cream mix into the machine. Hopefully that saves some poor soul out there a little hassle.

The Secret Menu

So why is McDonald’s so special? Well for starters, the Taylor Company and McDonald’s kind of have that exclusive partnership we mentioned earlier. We’ve outlined McDonald’s is more a real estate company than it is a food one, so they own the land a franchisee is opening their restaurant on. Void warranties on a Taylor machine and you’re functionally getting yourself shut down. Did we mention the company keeps over 80% of the revenue generated by franchisees? Ouch. 

Now that brings us to the FTC investigation. In 2019 a startup called Kytch created a device that could help McDonald’s workers troubleshoot Taylor ice cream machines, effectively making the machine’s opaque error codes readable and giving more self-repair options before having to go and call an expensive Taylor technician. You can probably guess this didn’t make McDonald’s or the Taylor Company very happy, considering that literally an entire quarter of their revenue from 2018 was generated by their “recurring parts and services business.” Aka the technicians they send out to stores to fix the broken ice cream machines.

Thus began the war against Kytch, where both McDonald’s and Taylor worked tirelessly to prevent Kytch devices (which, by the way, were not at all complicated) from getting into McDonald’s restaurants. In fact, in 2021 it came out that Taylor was trying to both infiltrate Kytch and copy their device to crush what they perceived as a business threat when Kytch sued Taylor for anti-competitive practices. Taylor was compelled to reveal internal communications in discovery that showed they attempted to copy Kytch’s device in response. No like Kytch appeared in internal presentations to Taylor executives. Perhaps more suspicious are the allegations that even McDonald’s was trying to keep this from happening—despite the fact that they’re not really supposed to have a horse in the race. 

That brings us back to the FTC’s investigation of McDonald’s. It’s actually about how often these machines fail: it’s about the right to repair these machines. These machines are designed to only be repairable by the manufacturer so they can scrape more money off the top of an already expensive machine. So uh… Yeah that’s why you can’t get a McFlurry. 

See if you know which countries have lots of McDonald’s restaurants here.