They Hacked McDonald’s Ice Cream Machines—and Started a Cold War

After their business cratered, O’Sullivan and Nelson began looking up the logins on Kytch’s website and saw that one of the user profiles associated with Gamble’s machine in the shop had been deleted a couple of months after the fateful McDonald’s email in November. That deleted user was named Matt Wilson. Was Wilson one of Gamble’s employees? They began to check his locations based on the IP addresses of the networks where he’d logged in, and found IPs from Arkansas, Tennessee, and Louisiana.

When they placed those points on a map, none of them appeared at Tyler Gamble’s restaurants. All the pinpoints were instead on top of facilities owned by TFG—a Taylor ice cream machine distributor.

Nelson and O’Sullivan had been on friendly terms with TFG executives back in their Frobot days. So they began digging through their old contacts there. They found a business card for Blaine Martin, one of TFG’s owners, which he had given them with a handshake at a trade show. To their shock, his cell phone number had been used to create the “Matt Wilson” Kytch account.

A Taylor distributor, it seemed, had obtained their device. And, contrary to his broken compressor story, they came to suspect it had been handed over by none other than friendly Tyler Gamble.

Just as Gamble was praising Kytch on the conference stage in October, Nelson and O’Sullivan now allege, he had also been helping Taylor as it engineered their company’s downfall—the coldest betrayal of all.

Revenge, Nelson and O’Sullivan now hope, is a dish best served—well, through a long and elaborate legal process. The lawsuit they’re planning is based on their claims that Gamble and likely other Kytch users violated their contracts with Kytch when they allegedly let Taylor analyze their devices, in an effort to curry favor with McDonald’s and its corporate allies.

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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Taylor counters that it “does not possess, and has never possessed, a Kytch device” and “has no knowledge of anyone logging onto a Kytch device.” But it notes that “our Tennessee distributor reported to Taylor that its servicer removed a Kytch device from a customer location in order to service our product.” Taylor’s distributor TFG didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment, and Tyler Gamble didn’t answer WIRED’s questions. But in an emailed response he described himself as “Kytch’s biggest advocate” and argued that he had supported the startup both publicly and privately. “Weird they would sue someone that has been in their corner and is a paying customer,” Gamble wrote, “but the facts will come out.”

Regardless of how the legal conflict unfolds, Kytch’s old technical adviser and investor bunnie Huang argues that McDonald’s and Taylor’s efforts to crush this tiny startup represent a form of validation. “When big guys come along and start thumping their chests around you, that’s sort of a recognition that you’re a threat to the alpha male,” says Huang, whose Hax accelerator still owns a small investment in the company. “It shows there was a demand for Kytch and it had an opportunity to disrupt things. But when that happens, if the big guys can’t keep up or they want to take the idea, then sometimes it’s easier for them to just sort of bury the body.”

As for Nelson and O’Sullivan, they have no illusions that their legal efforts will ultimately protect Kytch from McDonald’s and Taylor’s efforts to destroy it. In one of our final conversations, O’Sullivan admitted that he saw this very article as perhaps a postmortem of his company after it had been successfully murdered by the fast-food superpowers. “You’re kind of writing our obituary,” O’Sullivan told me.

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