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Harvard professor goes to war with Chinese restaurant over $4

Posted at 7:09 PM, Dec 10, 2014

Harvard Business School associate professor Ben Edelman is now in the running for “Most Disliked Guy on the Internet” — and all because of $4.

According to, the saga began last week when Edelman placed an order at a family-operated Boston-area Chinese restaurant named Sichuan Garden. He was hungry for sauteed prawns with roasted chili and peanut, stir-fried chicken with spicy capsicum, braised fish filets and napa cabbage with roasted chili, and shredded chicken with spicy garlic sauce.

When he placed his order, Edelman thought his meal would run him $53.35. But when he checked his receipt, he noticed he’d been charged an additional $4 — or, as he noted in the first of several emails he sent to Sichuan Garden, an apparent “increase of $1 on each and every item.”

Celebrated bartender Ran Duan, who manages the bar inside his parents’ Sichuan Garden location, was the one to respond to Edelman’s complaint. In doing so, he kicked off an epic three-day email exchange that ended with Edelman, who is also a lawyer and fashions himself as a “Web sheriff,” considering legal action against the restaurant.

It turns out that the menu Edelman viewed on Sichuan Garden’s website was out of date, which Duan apologized for and said he would fix.

This was Edelman’s response:

“Under Massachusetts law, it turns out to be a serious violation to advertise one price and charge a different price. I urge you to cease this practice immediately,” he wrote. “In the interim, I suggest that Sichuan Garden refund me three times the amount of the 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.”

Whether Edelman offered a correct interpretation of the law in that instance has been up for debate. But Edelman’s email exchange with Duan didn’t end there. After Duan offered to pay Edelman $3 as restitution, the professor replied that giving only him a refund would be “an exceptionally light sanction for the violation that has occurred.” As a result, Edelman told Duan that he’d reported the issue to local authorities and hoped that would cause the restaurant to “identify all consumers affected and to provide refunds to all of them.”

After more back-and-forth, Duan eventually had to ask: “Is this really worth your time?”

For Edelman, the answer seems to be “yes.” He told Business Insider in a statement that “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? I’m pleased to have at least gotten the problem fixed for the benefit of others.”

Edelman may be pleased, but several observers are not. On Twitter, he’s been raked over the coals, with some accusing him of living up to the worst stereotypes about lawyers and Harvard minds.

His interaction has even put some students at Harvard Business School on the defense. There’s now a fundraising campaign to give to those in need with the hope that it’ll help counteract the “negative stereotypes of Harvard and HBS (that) were reinforced” with Edelman’s dispute. The online campaign is asking “all Harvard students to flip the script by donating $4 to provide food for those in need.”

And for Sichuan Garden, this feud has turned into some good publicity. The restaurant’s Yelp page has received a steady stream of positive comments over the past few days, even from folks who have yet to taste the food.

“I live in NYC, so I haven’t eaten here,” said one Yelp user named John C. “But read the story about the Harvard B School prof/troll slamming them over a $4 dispute, and just wanted to show my support and respect for how the owners handled themselves and the troll. Respect.”

Neither Edelman nor Duan could be reached for comment.