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An HBS Prof’s $4 Spat Over Spicy Chicken

DIFFERENT FIGHT, SIMILAR TACTICS

And in fighting the airlines, Edelman also employed a tactic he would later use in the battle against Sichuan Garden: an appeal to regulators. In an effort to stop deceptive airline pricing advertisement, he filed complaints with the Department of Transportation, against seven airlines.

In the restaurant dispute, Duan’s refusal to take responsibility led to an escalation of Edelman’s demands. No longer to be satisfied with a $12, triple-damages penalty, to which Duan had agreed, he now wanted more.

“On reflection, I suggest making my order half-price – that’s appropriate thanks for my bringing this matter to your attention, since it seems you wouldn’t have recognized the urgency of correcting the web site had I not pushed you to do so.”

But with that demand, which would have amounted to a refund of $26.68, Edelman had hit a wall. Duan had promised to update the website with correct prices, but since Edelman had notified unspecified “applicable” authorities, Duan said he would wait to see what the authorities had to say, before issuing any refund.

Edelman might be criticized as petty and vindictive for upping his demands in the face of the small businessman’s intransigence. The HBS prof could be called a bully, for using his big brain and considerable legal expertise to deliver a smackdown on “mom and pop” over a $4 bill dispute.

But while The Great Sichuan Chicken War tends toward the comical, Edelman’s motivation for taking action is sound: $4 for one order, multiplied by dozens of orders per night, would probably amount to thousands of dollars per week. And by knowingly advertising lower prices than it actually charged, Sichuan Garden would be giving itself an unfair edge over its competitors.

WHO CAN YOU TRUST?

“Should small businesses get a free pass?” Edelman asked Poets&Quants, when contacted about the Sichuan Garden dispute. “I wonder if that really makes sense. The restaurant at issue knew the website prices had been ‘out of date for quite some time.’ At what point should they do something about it? We all rely on trust in our daily lives – that when sales tax is added, it actually applies and equals the specified amount; that the meter in a taxi shows the correct amount provided by law and measures the actual distance; that when you order takeout, the price you see online matches the amount you pay in the restaurant.

“We all take most of this for granted. It would be a lot of trouble to have to check these things day in and day out. That’s exactly why we should be concerned when folks fall short – because hardly anyone ever checks, so these problems can go unnoticed and can affect, in aggregate, large amounts.

“I’m pleased to have at least gotten the problem fixed for the benefit of others.”

Sichuan Garden’s Duan was off work Tuesday, Dec. 9, and did not respond by Poets&Quants’ deadline to messages left on his cell phone.

UPDATE: After defending on Tuesday his behavior with Duan, Edelman abruptly and abjectly went into full grovel mode on Wednesday, issuing a statement:

“Many people have seen my emails with Ran Duan of Sichuan Garden restaurant in Brookline. Having reflected on my interaction with Ran, including what I said and how I said it, it’s clear that I was very much out of line. I aspire to act with great respect and humility in dealing with others, no matter what the situation. Clearly I failed to do so. I am sorry, and I intend to do better in the future. I have reached out to Ran and will apologize to him personally as well.”

Later, Edelman responded to Poets&Quants in an email, reiterating his apology but standing firm on the deceptive pricing allegation. “There are important questions left open, like what happens in the event that (the restaurant’s online pricing) is out of date and who should get refunds when and how.”

DON’T MISS: MOST STIRRING SPEECH EVER BY AN MBA

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