Burgers, fries, and McNuggets are the staples of McDonald’s fare. But the chain also offers soft-serve ice cream in most of its 38,000+ locations. Or at least, theoretically it does. In reality, the ice cream machines are infamously prone to breaking down, routinely disappointing anyone trying to satisfy their midnight McFlurry craving.
One enterprising software engineer, Rashiq Zahid, decided it’s better to know if the ice cream machine is broken before you go. The solution? A bot to check ahead. Thus was born McBroken, which maps out all the McDonald’s near you with a simple color-coded dot system: green if the ice cream machine is working and red if it’s broken.
The bot basically works through McDonald’s mobile app, which you can use to place an order at any McDonald’s location. If you can add an ice cream order to your cart, the theory goes, the machine at that location is working. If you can’t, it’s not. So Zahid took that idea and scaled up.
“I reverse-engineered McDonald’s internal ordering API,” he explained when he launched the tool, “and I’m currently placing an order worth $18,752 every minute at every McDonald’s in the US to figure out which locations have a broken ice cream machine.”
The data-picture painted by the bot is weirdly fascinating. At the time of writing, for example, just under 10 percent of McDonald’s ice cream machines are broken nationwide. But in New York City, it’s almost 24 percent. It’s also a solid 20 percent right now in Seattle and about 14 percent in the Washington, DC, area.
The Verge interviewed Zahid about his project once his tweet announcing it took off.
He started the project examining McDonald’s locations in Germany, where he lives. He biked around Berlin, physically visiting McDonald’s locations to see if McBroken’s data was correct. After it passed that test, he expanded to the US. He also found out shortly after launch that the one-minute time frame was too quick—the app pretty quickly pegged him as a bot and cut off access. Trying to add a McSundae to the cart every 30 minutes, however, keeps McBroken up to date and appears to meet the McDonald’s app’s human-seeking standards.
This is not the first time a customer has tried to develop a technological workaround to McDonald’s corporate problems. In 2017, a woman named Raina McLeod created an app to track if McDonald’s ice cream machines were working. As McLeod explained to BuzzFeed at the time, she created the app “after a late night Oreo McFlurry craving went unfulfilled due to the ice cream machine being down.”
McLeod’s app, however, relied on crowdsourced data and therefore only worked as well as the would-be ice-cream buyers using it. By going directly to the source, McBroken can keep its data both more accurate and more up to date.
For its part, McDonald’s does not seem particularly upset about Zahid’s project. The company has long acknowledged that its ice cream machines are a weak spot in its lineup. On Twitter, company communications and government relations executive David Tovar applauded the effort. “Only a true McDonald’s fan would go to these lengths to help customers get our delicious ice cream!” Tovar said. “So thanks! We know we have some opportunities to consistently satisfy even more customers with sweet treats and we will.”
In the meantime, according to a Business Insider report from last week, franchisees are taking the matter into their own hands and seeking their own solutions to make sure ice cream machines are working more often.
Are McDonald’s broken ice cream machines the most urgent problem facing humanity? No, of course not, not by a long mile. But in a year like 2020, we have to take the little joys where we can, and a tool that can save you from disappointment before you’re in the drive-through line can make life better in a small, measurable way.