A disputed $4 overcharge for takeout food from a Chinese restaurant in Brookline led a Harvard associate professor to complain to local officials and call for refunds to be issued to any other patrons who paid too much.
Associate professor Benjamin G. Edelman of Brookline is leveling the charge against the Sichuan Garden for takeout food he purchased at the restaurant.
After discovering the disputed charge, Edelman entered into an e-mail exchange on Dec. 5 with Ran Duan, a celebrated local bartender who helps run the Sichuan Garden family business.
According to the exchange posted on boston.com, where the dispute was first reported, Edelman informed Duan on Friday that he ordered takeout from a menu on the restaurant’s website, and when he received the bill, he noticed a $1 increase from the posted price on each of the four items that he requested.
Duan responded about 20 minutes later, writing that the website prices had been out-of-date for “quite some time.”
He pledged to fix the site and offered to e-mail Edelman an updated menu.
Edelman, an attorney who teaches at the Harvard Business School, quickly wrote back, telling Duan that he is entitled to a $12 refund under state law and that it is “a serious violation to advertise one price and charge a different price.”
The dispute later escalated, according to the e-mail exchange, with Edelman telling Duan that he contacted the “applicable authorities” to compel the restaurant to identify all affected consumers and provide refunds to them.
In an e-mail to the Globe Tuesday night, Edelman said he contacted Brookline town officials, who informed him that “they wouldn’t be able to help.”
“I wonder how many consumers were overcharged before I flagged the issue and pressed the restaurant to remove the false statements on its website,” Edelman wrote to the Globe.
“It would be nice if the current burst of media interest caused the restaurant to refund the overcharges to everyone.”
Duan did not return calls seeking comment on Tuesday night.
According to the e-mail exchange, he initially balked at providing the $12 refund and offered to compensate Edelman for the original overcharge.
Edelman responded the following day.
“It strikes me that merely providing a refund to a single customer would be an exceptionally light sanction for the violation that has occurred,” Edelman wrote to Duan. “To wit, your restaurant overcharged all customers who viewed the website and placed a telephone order. ... You did so knowingly, knowing that your website was out of date and that customers would see it and rely on it.”
Duan later told Edelman that the website was being updated and agreed to provide a $12 refund, and he said the “mom [and] pop restaurant” did not have a proper budget for website updates.
The dispute continued, with haggling over disclaimer language on the website indicating that prices may vary, and Edelman ultimately requested a larger refund.
“ ‘May vary’ might excuse certain small changes or deviations, with the website updated as soon as possible,” Edelman wrote.
“Increasing the price of each and every item, and not updating the site for a long period — that just won’t fly.”
Edelman continued, “On reflection, I suggest making my order half-price — that’s appropriate thanks for my bringing this matter to your attention.”
Duan agreed to the 50 percent refund on the entire bill, provided the authorities saw fit to resolve the dispute that way. Edelman said late Tuesday that he has not received any compensation.
Travis Andersen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.