MANY PEOPLE WHO WANT TO sell their small companies are finding that their money lies over the ocean.

When foreign investors poured $89.8 billion into the United States last year, Treasury securities were at the top of their shopping lists. But some foreign companies see their best opportunities in small U.S. businesses and are acquiring more and more of them, despite the high cost imposed by the strong dollar.

Food companies have been prowling for niches here. Last year, a British wine, beer, and spirits concern paid $4.8 million for Red Cheek Apple Juice. Even dry-cleaning companies are hot targets. Jim Wahl sold a uniform-rental franchising business to Johnson Group Cleaners PLC a few years ago, and since then has helped the British company find other uniform-rental companies and dry cleaners to buy. Like many sellers, Wahl felt that a foreign buyer would be more likely to let him continue running the business. That same reasoning also persuaded Larry and Milton Gralla to sell their trade-magazine company to United Newspapers PLC, of London.

Most foreign investors are buying companies in their own line of business, lured by figures showing that the American economy is growing much faster than that of most other countries. As the oil glut has cut Middle Eastern building projects, Turkish, Spanish, and French construction companies are considering bids for American ones. "The U.S. is a big market, and it's one place a fair amount of [construction] activity is going on," says James J. Kelly, president of W.T. Grimm & Co., a Chicago business broker.

Brokers see the possibility of a stronger acquisitions market ahead. "You would see even more deals if the dollar were weaker," says Arthur Rosenbloom, president of MMG Capital Corp., an international investment banking firm.