Harvard B-school prof wages war against Chinese restaurant

Ben Edelman has a law degree from Harvard Law School, a teaching position at Harvard Business School, and an economics and business background that has brought him such consulting clients as Microsoft, the NFL, the New York Times. He also seems to think he knows how to make life sheer hell if you’re the owner of a Chinese restaurant in Woburn and Brookline, Mass., that charged him $4 more than your website said because you don’t update your website as often as you ought.

Hilary Sargent at Boston.com has the whole story, including the email trail. (“It strikes me that merely providing a refund to a single customer would be an exceptionally light sanction for the violation that has occurred…. 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.”) Is Prof. Edelman trying to get us to consider him as the new poster guy for Overlawyered?

P.S. Edelman defends himself here. Before the Sichuan affair, the professor was already known for taking an entrepreneurial approach to online complaint [Bloomberg Business Week] “If you think this is bad, you should see his antitrust analysis.” [reader W.R.] And from New York, relevant to a question that may have occurred to some readers: “Can A Business Ban An Attorney Who Has Filed A Lawsuit Against It?” [James Lemonedes, Above the Law]

P.P.S. He’s pulled this before, it seems. More reading: Lowering the Bar; Jordan Weissmann, Slate.


  • It does make one wonder how much he pays for a pair of pants.


  • The restaurant guy didn’t just overcharge Edelman, he overcharged everybody who ordered food online, which could have amounted to thousands of dollars, deepending on how long he’d been doing this. Then he lied about what the web site said. And he could have gotten Edelman off his back by sending him the $12 which Massachusetts law says is what he should get. Not so clear to me that Edelman is the bad guy here.

  • Alan, the restaurant immediately offered Edelman a refund. It was Edelman who escalated the situation by referring the matter to state authorities. Even then, the restaurant continued to say it would pay Edelman back, but only after hearing from whatever authorities Edelman had contacted. That’s a wise decision — you don’t write a check if you’re not getting closure.

    Moreover, Edelman could have referred the matter to the state authorities and been done with it. Instead, he eventually demanded a refund of half his order price as “thanks” for “bringing the matter to the attention” of the restaurant. That was anything but the public service Edelman now attempts to portray.

  • God….. and people wonder why there is such a low opinion of lawyers.
    Where was Edelman when Madoff was running around?

  • he overcharged everybody who ordered food online

    It doesn’t seem like there was any ability to order food online – they just had an out of date menu published online, and people would order by phone or something assuming they’d get the price they saw on the website.

    you don’t write a check if you’re not getting closure.

    For $12? I’d write that check.

  • Just wait until the Chinese takeout places get hit with racial discrimination cases for their strict Asians-only hiring policies.

  • Awaiting Popehat take on this…this smacks of a 1L that has learned some scary sounding terms in Contracts I and is ready to show someone who they’re messing with…his white knight justification is also a nice touch…”think of the legions of consumers I have helped with my selfless crusade…”..did not see if anyone has googled MASS DMV to see if there are any overcompensating convertibles registered in his name…interestingly, Harvard B School Students now trying to distance themselves from him, and initiating a “donate 4$ for hunger” campaign to “flip the script” and turn the bad PR into good…..


  • (a) Prof. Edelman’s order sounds delicious. He seems to know his Chinese food; (b) As is widely known, we not-so-orthodox Jews have chosen Chinese food as our haute cuisine. I would urge Prof. Edelman to consider the potential negative effects of gratuitously disrupting this harmonious, symbiotic relationship.

  • @Anonymous Attorney: Increasingly, the cooks at Chinese restaurants are Mexican or Central American. Bullet dodged.

    And actually, it’s at many restaurants, no matter the cuisine.

  • From WRT’s interesting followup clip: “People here are really amazing and smart and supportive and humble.” Not sure that’s going to suffice to “flip the script,” especially when the organizer actually comes out and uses a P.R. cliche like “flip the script.”

  • I wonder if, in the pre-internet days, anyone ever ordered takeout from an outdated Chinese menu? The horror. Hopefully, if that happened, treble damages were available.

    Of course, everyone knows that websites are different from printed menus, and that everything on the net is always up-to-date and reliable. It reminds me of a trip to San Fran a few years back. We decided to walk a mile or so to the Toronado, a famous bar on Haight. My lady friend was very excited about a particular beer included in their on-line beer list. She ordered it when we arrived, only to be told “oh we never update that and haven’t had that beer in a long time.” Where was Edelman when I needed him?

  • Not to give the professor any ideas, but the web is full of free, often amateurishly done business directories that make little effort to update listings. In my town, visitors regularly arrive in search of defunct businesses whose online listings live on, including a bed and breakfast that closed at least five years ago.

  • This sounds like one of those things where the end result is a legal requirement that every takeout menu or online-menu webpage have a big heavy-bordered box with text reading “THE PRICES ON THIS MENU WERE CURRENT AT THE TIME OF PRINTING. FOR THE MOST UP TO DATE PRICES, CHECK WITH THE RESTAURANT. CUSTOMERS WHO FEEL THAT THEY ARE UNFAIRLY OVERCHARGED SHOULD CONTACT THE LOCAL BUSINESS LICENSING ORGANISATION.”

    And no actual restitution for any actual harm; just more pain-in-the-ass because somebody got his butt hurt.

  • I’m sorry, but isn’t there some sort of duty of the customer to check what they are being charged before paying the bill?

    By that I mean this is not a case where a car repair shop advertises an oil change at $20 and then charges $30 and won’t give you your car back until you pay the additional money.

    This was an internet take out order which meant that when Edelman had not eaten the food (in the restaurant) or even had it delivered. Instead, he hadn’t gotten his food yet when he paid for it. No one was holding his cash or credit card hostage forcing him to pay the higher bill.

    When he hands over the cash / check / credit card to the cashier and picks up his order, isn’t he saying “I agree to the charges as listed here?”

    I guess what I am wondering is that he agreed to the terms of the deal and now wants to penalize the restaurant far beyond the value of his food and the so difference in price.

    I always look at my receipts before signing them or handing over cash.

    Am I smarter and better than a Harvard professor who cannot see that his bill was higher than expected and yet agreed to pay the higher rate?

  • The professor is a smart guy who researches/lectures re web analytics, meta data and other business tech issues. I am surprised he hasn’t announced it was all a big experiment into Streisand Effects and the ability of the web to hurt your brand…

  • […] the website Overlawyered — Tag line: Chronicling the high cost of our legal system — Walter Olson wonders if Prof. Edelman wants to become its poster […]

  • I sympathize with Edelman.

    Let’s hypothesize a different situation (this is a real situation that happened to a friend of mine):

    A senior citizen goes into her local bank and is convinced to work with a financial advisor. The advisor says she will charge 0.75%/year to manage the client’s assets. However, she actually charges 1.0%/year, and the customer doesn’t notice until years later (the percentage is never listed on the monthly statements – just a dollar amount, so it is not immediately obvious what percentage is being charged). The overcharges amount to thousands of dollars. The customer complains to the bank, and the bank says — oops, sorry, and offers a refund.

    What should she do?
    1) Should she take it and be done with it?
    2) Should the bank have to refund all the customers it overcharged?
    3) Should the bank have to refund all the customers AND pay a penalty on top of it?

    If you choose either 1 or 2, then the bank has a very good thing going. It can cheat its customers at will. If it doesn’t get caught, it can keep the money. If it does get caught, it may have to give some of the money back, but it is no worse off than if it never cheated its customers at all. It’s all upside and no downside.

    OK, so I agree that this is a different situation here. This is a small business, not a large evil bank. But we do have general laws/principles that should apply to everyone equally (in theory, if not in practice). So where do we draw the line?

  • […] “… because of the economy of scale they have in managing such compliance issues.” [Coyote, in a letter to the dean of the Harvard Business School taking off on the Edelman case] […]

  • I think the restaurants in Boston may want to start posting this guys name and photo.

    In fact, maybe they should have a “No Jerks” day and simply refuse to serve ANY Harvard B School faculty for 24 hours. I know public accommodation law prohibits discrimination based on some protected classes but are employer or profession among them? Ask each patron if the work for the BS, give them a flyer explaining the reason for the protests and point out that if it is discovered that they ARE employees and lied, you will take legal action against them. Not sure what you could do. Maybe publish a menu that states HBS faculty have a minimum table charge of $10,000 to go to a pool for defending stupid legal actions and then go after them for fraud.