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Harvard Professor Hassles Mom and Pop Over $4 Overcharge



sichuan garden

What happens when you overcharge a Harvard Business School professor for Chinese food? Ran Duan, manager of the Baldwin Bar inside the Sichuan Garden, a mom and pop Chinese restaurant, recently discovered the unpleasant answer.

Ben Edelman, an associate professor at Harvard, ordered from the local restaurant. But upon delivery, he found that the prices of items on the website were all about one dollar less than what he had paid. The total overcharge by his reckoning was $4.  He immediately contacted the owners, pointing out the issue.

Duan answered with an apology, stating that the website’s prices had been out of date for ‘quite some time’, and promised to update the menu. A simple misunderstanding, no?

No.

In an email, Edelman responded:

“I suggest that Sichuan Garden refund me three times the amount of overcharge. The tripling reflects the approach provided under the Massachusetts consumer protection statute, MGL 93a, wherein consumers broadly receive triple damages for certain intentional violations.”

The Harvard professor goes on to request instead of the $12 refund, that Duan simply cut his take-out bill (of more than $50) in half. He explains that this is more than fair for bringing the pricing issue to the restaurant’s attention. Duan goes on to offer a refund for the confusion. But Edelman insists on more.

Judging by the emails, this does not seem to be an ‘intentional violation’ as Edelman suggests. Instead, insists one commentator, David Jacobson, founder of Trivworks, it is just a case of someone bullying a small business owner.

Jacobson adds:

“Read the Email exchange again, and look how he seeks to confuse and intimidate the restaurant manager with legalese, threats to alert authorities and other actions. He’s not doing this because he’s fighting the good fight against bad business practices and false advertising – he’s doing it because it works.”

However, Duan keeps a cool head, repeatedly apologizing and explaining how he intends to handle the situation, saying in an email:

“I have told you exactly how I am going to resolve this situation, and have already acted…by honoring our website prices, unfortunately that wasn’t good enough and you notified the authorities so this is out of my hands now.”

Although it is clear that the restaurant’s website was out of date, the way that the situation was handled has brought Edleman a fair amount of criticism in the media.

Duan posted the emails online. And soon after, Edelman had news outlets calling him out for his ‘bully-ish’ behavior, including criticism from NPR, Boston.com, and Fox. Some people even took the time to drive to the restaurant to show their support. Eventually, Edelman posted this message on his Twitter account and website:

“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.”

He goes on to state that he has reached out to Duan and intends to apologize to him personally as well.

Sichuan Photo via Shutterstock

7 Comments ▼

Aubrielle Billig Aubrielle Billig is a Staff Writer for Small Business Trends. She covers business as it is impacted by pop culture, entrepreneurs in the arts, and other topics affecting creative businesses. She has a background as an illustrator and her design page can be found at AubrielleBillustrations.

7 Reactions
  1. I’m glad to see an update on this so people don’t just chalk it up to a Harvard professor being a jerk to a restaurant owner. He just needed someone to call him out and help him get some perspective on the situation. I’m especially glad for all the free publicity this has generated for Duan and his restaurant. I wish him all the best.

  2. Thank you for referencing my blog post in this article – like other small business owners, I feel strongly that bullying customer behavior like this cannot be tolerated, and appreciate you helping shine the spotlight on this practice

  3. It’s a shame that the person seems to be a person of intelligence. Regardless of intelligence, respect will still win.

  4. Edelman is a member of the nobility (a Harvard degree makes you a noble). It is the moral duty of a noble to exploit peasants and extract as much tribute as possible from them. Despite the usual misinterpretation, this is the meaning of Liberty in the Magna Carta, the absolute right of lords to treat their serfs as they please without interference from the king/central government. And the US is the Land of Liberty.

  5. I hope that the restaurant will get more business from this story, and that the professor will learn a lesson… I would pay with my wallet and visit the restaurant, next time I am in MA.

  6. I thought it was decent that Edelman apologized publicly.

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