Convenience chains are stepping up their food game.

CHICAGO — Though nearly a third of consumers buy food or beverages from convenience stores at least once a week, the segment is expected to be flat this year, according to Technomic Inc., Chicago.

Accounting for approximately 28% of retail food service, the $11.2 billion channel remains challenged by perceptions of poor food quality and lack of freshness. For more than 9 out of 10 consumers, the biggest drivers of convenience store food purchases are taste, flavor and quality, and more chains are responding with improved food offerings.

“As more c-store brands increase focus on offering a wider variety of fresh, high-quality foods and competition heats up across the segment, understanding the convenience store food service landscape has never been more important,” said Donna Hood Crecca, senior director for Technomic.

For example, QuikTrip, Tulsa, Okla., last year installed full-service counters in select markets with a QT Kitchens menu of customized drinks, food and desserts. Items include a chicken bacon ranch flatbread, pizza by the slice, specialty coffee beverages and blended ice cream treats.

Dallas-based 7-Eleven has expanded its offerings to include more healthy snacks and such exclusive items as Doritos Loaded, a nacho cheese-filled fried snack.

And Kwik Trip, a La Crosse, Wis.-based convenience store operator in the upper Midwest, is on the cutting edge of an extensive whole grains program. The chain currently offers a healthy concessions program with a menu guide, balanced meals and shelf markers.

“…convenience stores serve as a prime destination for younger generations and people seeking fast, on-the-go options, and there are plenty of winning chains and opportunities for growth,” Technomic said.

As for hot menu trends at convenience stores, breakfast sandwiches continue to surge with a 20% increase between 2013 and 2014. Energy drinks also made gains in the channel, contributing to the category’s nearly 23% growth in menu items.