A tutorial company executive is suing a Chinese restaurant over a matter that began with a HK$6 overcharge on a lunch tab, a small amount which he says represents the larger problem of service industry practices running counter to consumer rights.
James ffitzRoy, the Oxford-educated managing director of International Tutors, and his team are seeking unspecified damages from Chao Yang Restaurant, a 27th-floor establishment at iSquare in Tsim Sha Tsui, for not following the price stated on the menu and overcharging them by HK$4 for a dish of braised string beans and HK$2 more for a bowl of rice.
He is accusing the restaurant of violating the Trade Description Ordinance. The cost of filing the lawsuit, according to the judiciary, is HK$630 – more than ffitzRoy’s contentious restaurant tab, which totalled HK$436.
“It’s not about the money. It’s to get a point across. As a consumer, I feel entitled to a correct record of what I ordered,” ffitzRoy said in an interview with the South China Morning Post at his upscale offices in Wan Chai.
“It’s part of the consumer experience to be treated with respect,” said ffitzRoy. He said he had pointed out mistakes with other restaurants before, and most of the time these were settled amicably.
“It is actually wrong by law to accept incorrect payment. My feeling would be that I would be helping the restaurant break the law by doing it.”
He added that it was “not uncommon” for many restaurants in the city to give “purely transactional service … and not to understand that the reason they can charge multiples for the food is because of the service”.
Chao Yang had earlier filed a complaint before the small claims tribunal, with a hearing set for December 10.
FfitzRoy dined with a guest at Chao Yang on October 22, on a table booked for him by his colleague Janice Leung. Apart from the slow service, the Briton said he had no complaints – until the moment he was served the HK$436 bill, he said.
He said he calmly spoke to the waitresses and manager, and “patiently waited” for their decision. “They admitted it was the waitress’ fault” and that “the string beans [price] was incorrect” but in the end refused to revise the bill. So ffitzRoy gave his business card to the manager, requesting them to send him the proper bill, and left.
Chao Yang accounts officer Ada Fung sent a formally worded e-mail the next day, requesting he settle the amount of HK$436. Through Janice Leung, a tutorial centre director, ffitzRoy insisted the restaurant give the correct bill.
The back-and-forth continued for days and escalated as neither party refused to budge.
Robert Tsai, who holds the licence to the restaurant and who was not present during the October 22 incident, admitted his staff had overcharged as his staff quoted an old price for a bowl of rice.
According to his employees’ accounts, Tsai said ffitzRoy had been “rude and angry” at the restaurant.
Tsai, speaking by phone, claimed his staff said they were willing to correct the bill but “the customer just fled without making any payment”.
FfitzRoy argues, however, that in Fung’s e-mail the next day, it still asked for the incorrect bill of HK$436. Tsai countered that they were unable to print a new receipt because the customer left, and so the original copy was what Fung used in her e-mail.
“In my 30 years in the restaurant business, I have never met anyone so unreasonable. I’ve seen a lot of people make errors, but in the end they apologise for it,” Tsai said.
After days of negotiations over e-mail, International Tutors’ chief legal officer, Louis Hop Lee, said the restaurant should pay HK$1,000 to ffitzRoy to compensate him for the time and effort spent dealing with the matter.
Tsai fired off two responses, first saying that HK$1,000 was a “ridiculous amount” and “if they don’t explain it clearly, I will treat it as blackmail”. He also said the other party accused them of fraud and demanded that the tutorial company publish a full-page apology in an English language newspaper.
Asked why, as this would make the matter public, Tsai said he feared for his restaurant’s reputation.
In his second e-mail, he gave a deadline to the company to explain their accusations before he filed a police report. He filed the report on October 27, followed by a complaint to the tribunal the next day.
FfitzRoy stood by the fraud allegation, saying it was based on the law. In his writ, he cited a violation of the Trade Description Ordinance.
In the small claims tribunal complaint by Chao Yang, the restaurant actually gave a discounted amount of HK$432, which Tsai said proved they were willing to make a correction on the bill. FfitzRoy said the recent lawsuit, then, was to show the cost that the whole affair took on him and his team.
FfitzRoy, who has 15 years’ experience teaching, charges HK$1,760 per hour for lessons. Given the rate, Leung and ffitzRoy said the HK$1,000 recompense was “only fair”.
Fung, Tsai and Easy Joy Enterprises, a holding company that owns the restaurant, were named in the lawsuit filed by ffitzRoy.
The tutorial company said the matter would not have turned into a legal battle, had the restaurant agreed to knock off the extra HK$6 off the bill.
Tsai, however, said: “I think he’s a troublemaker. I will not let him get away. The conclusion will come from the courts.”
Correction: James ffitzRoy charges HK$1,760 per hour for lessons, not HK$880 as originally stated.