Chinese Food-Gate has hit the Internet. Here are the facts, more or less:
Ben Edelman teaches at the Harvard Business School. He has a degree from Harvard Law School and is a member of the Massachusetts Bar Association.
Sichuan Garden is a Boston-area Chinese restaurant with a location in Woburn. The manager—who may also be an owner—is Ran Duan.
Professor Edelman bought Chinese food from Sichuan Garden. He—and others—enjoyed the food. However, he noted a $1.00 per item discrepancy per dish, between website pricing and actual prices.
Professor Edelman sought a refund, and wanted treble damages pursuant to Part I (Administration of the Government), Title XV (Regulation of Trade), Section 9 (Civil actions and remedies; class action; demand for relief; damages; costs; exhausting administrative remedies) of Chapter 93A (Regulation of Business Practices for Consumers Protection) of the Massachusetts General Laws. So, $12.00!
Mr. Duan offered the $4.00 overcharge. Professor Edelman said “no” and was considering his options. That’s when the egg rolls hit the deep fat fryer, so to speak, and the story went viral.
Jordan Weissman for MoneyBox at Slate.com tells the story well in That Harvard Professor Who Raged Out at a Chinese Restaurant? He May Have Gotten the Law Wrong, Too. (As for getting the law wrong, treble damages appear to depend on a “willful or knowing violation” and Mr. Duan’s defense was a failure to update the website. Imagine, a website which is not up-to-date!)
Then there is the rest of the story. First, at the end of Mr. Weissman’s piece you’ll find Professor Edelman’s apology. (Mr. Weissman calls it an unequivocal apology. Only circa 2014, with apologies that begin with “mistakes were made” or “if I offended anyone,” does “I’m sorry, I was wrong” require a modifier.)
Second, a follow-up piece on Slate.com’s MoneyBox by Joshua Gans, Actually, We Need More Harvard Professors Who Would Call Out Overcharges at a Restaurant notes several important facts. Professor Edelman’s research work involves the online economy, so the issue of overcharging is relevant to what he does. Professor Edelman never notified the media, and made no effort to publicize the situation. He also never identified his Harvard connections, or the fact that he is an attorney.
Looks like Chinese Food-Gate has ended. What are the lessons?
- Prepare for unintended consequences if you have a prominent place in this world, and even untenured professors at HBS stand taller than most people. (By the way, attorneys stand tall always, and are cool targets, especially when they read the law a little wrong and are dealing with small matters.)
- Apologies work best when you really are sorry (and, reading, Professor Edelman’s apology, he sounds genuine.)
- We do need a regulatory scheme for honesty in advertising and the myriad other aspects of commerce in which the exchange may not be transparent. Professor Edelman picked the wrong target here, for there is no evidence of anything other than sloppy website management. He was the wrong messenger. That said, the law on which he relied exists for a good reason. If businesses use the fact that complaints against them seem silly to get away with small “crimes” that produce large profits, they make the case for the regulatory scheme we have.
- Get the whole story. Often, first reports are accurate, but sometimes the story needs some fleshing out.