Like the average McDonald’s customer, the Federal Trade Commission wants to know why the fast food chain’s ice cream machine always seems to be broken.
The FTC sent letters to owners of franchise locations early this summer to learn more about the notorious issue, the Wall Street Journal reported this week. Under the Biden administration, the agency responsible for regulating fair competition has been aiming to crack down on right-to-repair issues, with the goal of giving consumers and businesses more choice when it comes to fixing or servicing products.
McDonald’s said in a statement to the Globe that the company “has no reason to believe we are the focus of an FTC investigation.” The company said it has a team working on the ice cream issue, and it is deploying solutions such as new training for employees and regular maintenance checkups on the machines.
According to an online tracker of McDonald’s locations in the US that are unable to serve ice cream products, called Mcbroken.com, nearly 11 percent of the chain’s stores are experiencing technical difficulties. That includes about 20 stores in Massachusetts.
The letter to franchisees indicated that the investigation is “preliminary,” the Journal reported.
At issue could be the relationship McDonald’s has with Taylor Commercial Foodservice, the company that makes most of its ice cream machines. The Journal reported that the machines, which make milkshakes, soft-serve ice cream, and the McFlurry, require a “nightly automated heat-cleaning cycle that can last up to four hours to destroy bacteria.” If that process doesn’t work, owners must call in a technician before they can use the machine.
It’s a costly endeavor to fix the broken machines, which run at about $18,000 each, Wired reported earlier this year. Since information about the inner workings of the machine stay hidden from restaurant owners, when a machine breaks, they must often turn to Taylor distributors that charge “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 publication wrote.
“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,” Jeremy O’Sullivan, who built a gadget that can help owners try to fix the machine on their own, told Wired.
A lawsuit filed by O’Sullivan’s company, Kytch, in May alleges that since Taylor profits off of repairs, it has little incentive to try to make the machines less glitchy or more accessible so that they could be fixed by others.
The Journal reported that Taylor said owners are allowed to fix their machines, with an exception: The warranty for the product would no longer be valid.
This issue falls into the purview of the FTC because under current antitrust law, warranties on products are not allowed to be deceptive or written in a way that limit an owner’s repair options.
The frozen-dessert machine giant Taylor is based in Illinois and has a distributor in Norwood. A representative of Taylor and its Norwood facility did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and the FTC declined to comment on the matter.