FOSTER'S SEEKING EDGE ON ITS FAST-FOOD RIVALS

BRYANT, Ark. -- Foster's Foods here is making changes in its deli department to gain a competitive edge against other retailers as well as fast-food outlets.The independent is increasing space for the deli by a third, adding a second fryer to be devoted to frying catfish and is quadrupling the amount of seating available for shoppers who want to eat at the store. The retailer is also installing a

BRYANT, Ark. -- Foster's Foods here is making changes in its deli department to gain a competitive edge against other retailers as well as fast-food outlets.

The independent is increasing space for the deli by a third, adding a second fryer to be devoted to frying catfish and is quadrupling the amount of seating available for shoppers who want to eat at the store. The retailer is also installing a second cash register in the department and adding a pizza program.

The retailer, which already does a brisk lunch business, is expanding to capitalize on its steadily building evening traffic as well.

"Our vision wasn't wide enough when we started out here six years ago. Business has grown beyond anything we thought of and the bulk of our weekday traffic is between 5 and 7 in the evening," said Roy L. Foster Jr., owner of the family business. The total floor space of the unit will be stretched from 24,000 square feet to 33,000 square feet. That may not sound so big, but that, too, is the point. "Our smallness works in our favor. Customers can get in and out quicker," said Foster, stressing that he's focusing on his capability to provide ready-to-eat food all day. "We're even going to start serving breakfast."

A Wal-Mart Supercenter in the area doesn't scare Foster. "Time's too valuable. I can't imagine someone wandering through 100,000 square feet of store to find something to take home for dinner," he said. "People are stopping here after work to get something to take home for dinner, and we want to give them more choices. We sell gobs of fried chicken but we can do more. When we get expanded, we'll have room for a fryer for catfish, and we'll offer two other entrees in the evening as well as at lunch."

Bryant is a bedroom community a half-hour west of Little Rock. As more people move to the suburbs, Foster said, his evening traffic has increased.

The store's lunch traffic can be better handled with a little more room, too, Foster added. Right now, in addition to chicken, a lunch of the day is offered. Homemade meatloaf, Salisbury steak, baked chicken breast and fried pork chops are part of the repertoire.

"We have people waiting for seats at lunchtime," Foster said. The seating area currently accommodates only 16, but with the addition of two-person and four-person booths, more than 60 can be seated after the remodel. It's not the larger supermarkets eight or 10 miles down the road that Foster sees as his competition. It's the fast-food restaurants across the street. And the choices of ready-to-eat food he'll add address the challenge presented by those competitors.

For instance, he said, a component pizza program he'll soon launch will compete well with Little Caesar's across the street. He won't add a salad bar. "Wendy's right here does a good job with their salad bar."