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An HBS Prof’s $4 Spat Over Spicy Chicken

Harvard Business School professor Benjamin Edelman - Harvard photo

You don’t sucker punch Chuck Norris. You don’t tug on Godzilla’s tail. You don’t try to take a bone from a 120-pound Rottweiler. And you don’t ever, ever attempt to overcharge Benjamin Edelman for Chinese take-out.

When Boston-area restaurant Sichuan Garden billed the Harvard Business School professor $4 more than its web-advertised price for his spicy chicken, chili-and-peanut prawns, stir-fried chicken, and braised fish filets, Edelman didn’t take it personally – he took it generally.

If Sichuan Garden was dinging him an extra dollar per dish, they must’ve been doing the same to every other customer ordering takeout, he reasoned.

And that, to an activist academic who has taken on the airline industry over dishonest pricing schemes, meant war.

“Under Massachusetts law it turns out to be a serious violation to advertise one price and charge a different price,” Edelman wrote to Ran Duan, the son of the Sichuan Garden founders, after Edelman’s initial emailed complaint to the restaurant drew a response from Duan that “Our websites prices has been out of date for quite some time (sic).” Duan offered to email an updated menu.

Edelman didn’t want a menu. He wanted accountability.

PROF DEMANDS TRIPLE DAMAGES: $12

“I suggest that Sichuan Garden refund me three times the amount of the overcharge,” Edelman wrote on Dec. 5, during a back-and-forth flurry of 11 increasingly testy emails between the two men over three days, obtained by Boston.com. “The tripling reflects the approach provided under the Massachusetts consumer protection statute, MGL 93a, wherein consumers broadly receive triple damages for certain intentional violations.”

Duan responded with a promise to “honor the website price” and refund $3 to Edelman. “Let me know if that works for you,” Duan wrote.

It didn’t.

“Your restaurant overcharged me $4, not $3,” Edelman replied the next morning, before opening up a can of consumer-protection whoop-ass on the hapless Duan. “It strikes me that merely providing a refund to a single customer would be an exceptionally light sanction for the violation that has occurred. To wit, your restaurant overcharged all customers who viewed the web site and placed a telephone order,” Edelman wrote. “I have already referred this matter to applicable authorities in order to attempt to compel your restaurant to identify all consumers affected and to provide refunds to all of them, or in any event to assure that an appropriate sanction is applied as provided by law.”

Duan, however, further provoked Edelman’s wrath by asserting that the prices posted on the website for Sichuan Garden, which has two outlets, could vary by location.

“We are a mom and pop restaurant. We work hard to make an honest living and we do not rip people off. We do not have a proper budget for . . . website updates,” Duan wrote. “I apologize for the confusion, you seem like a smart man, But is this really worth your time?”

Edelman replied that the website which contained the false prices listed both locations. “Increasing the price of each and every item, and not updating the site for a long period – that just won’t fly,” Edelman wrote. “You’re right that I have better things to do. If you had responded appropriately to my initial message – providing the refund I requested with a genuine and forthright apology – that could have been the end of it. The more you try to claim your restaurant was not at fault, the more determined I am to seek a greater sanction against you.”

YOU DON’T MESS AROUND WITH BEN

Clearly, Sichuan Garden messed with the wrong guy.

Not only does Edelman have a PhD in economics and a law degree from Harvard, he teaches courses there on online commerce, as a professor in one of the world’s ultra-elite business schools. He has particular expertise in shifty advertising – and a history of defending customers from unscrupulous operators.

His 2013 paper, Misrepresentation of Fuel Surcharges in Airline Price Advertising, took aim at major airline industry players, including American Airlines, British Airways, Air France, and Cathay Pacific. Edelman and co-author Xiaoxiao Wu accused the carriers of violating U.S. Department of Transportation rules by misrepresenting costly fees as “taxes.”

The report authors’ suggested resolution foreshadowed Edelman’s demand during The Great Sichuan Chicken War: “Any airline (that) has charged a fuel surcharge that is impermissible under law should refund the unlawful amounts to affected consumers.”