Suburban Detroit restaurateur Luciano Del Signore spent about $80,000 to create a catering kitchen on wheels that also serves as a moving billboard for his business.

The vehicle exterior is adorned with large format graphics of a woman sipping wine amid a splash of colors that match the ceiling of his upscale eatery, Bacco Ristorante.

Two Michigan dealerships played a key role in the creation. Through Corporate Fleet Services, a division of Snethkamp Chrysler Dodge in Highland Park, Del Signore acquired a black Mercedes Sprinter.

He then commissioned Innovative Media of Madison Heights, MI, to design the graphic sheets. Those were sent to Galeana Van Dyke Dodge in Warren, where a custom 3M installer applied the artwork on the vehicle.

Just one year on the road, Del Signore’s catering sales have zoomed skyward. His decorated van visits the finest neighborhoods and office plazas, parked long enough for people to see the message.

Vehicle wraps are catching on. For the ’11 model year, auto makers such as Ford, Smart and Mini sanction dedicated sites for commercial and retail customers to select graphics and get them installed at dealerships.

Some dealer associations recommend bold graphics on courtesy shuttles to drum up business. Many dealerships’ commercial and fleet clients have enhanced their messages in designs and colors.

“Personalization is the way to go,” says Sean Carlson, director-business development for Original Wraps in Lakewood, CO.

He suggests car dealers thinking about expanding into the vehicle-wrap business should consider the fast growth of other forms of adornment, from body tattoos to cell-phone graphics.

Likewise, plain vehicles are canvases for graphic creativity – and dealer profitability, Carlson says.

“Dealers can sell vehicles that are unique and maintain a continued relationship with that customer,” he says. “Individuals may change out their graphics, upgrade to more complex designs and request a brake job while the car is in the shop for a new illustrated-door panels.”

Shep Nelson, general manager of Nick Alexander Mini in Los Angeles says the wrap business brings in a nice profit for the dealership retailing 100 new vehicles a month.

Customization has helped push the dealer to become one of the largest Mini retailers in the nation.

Spurred by TV shows such as “Pimp My Ride” and a growing general personalization trend, the dealership sought a way to elevate the Mini brand’s presence.

The store wrapped vehicles in vintage Mini Cooper racing stripes with a matte-black finish. It caught on with the public. “We posted pictures on Facebook and it brought people in the door,” Nelson says.

A complete wrap runs about $2,000 tacked onto the price of a new Mini. Accent striping costs $900, Nelson says, noting that sales people earn up to a $100 commission.

The dealership’s detail technician can apply simple stripes. For more elaborate jobs, the dealer works with Original Wraps for computer-assisted design and material fabrication.

Together, they commission certified installers from a network of Minnesota-based 3M to apply graphics properly. Installation takes about two days.

Sales are strong, says Gary Scanlan, a sales manager at Corporate Fleet Services. His firm coordinates graphics for fleet accounts.

“Some of our clients change their graphics every 90 days to match their advertising messages,” he says. “This is easier to do with newer graphic materials that can be applied and removed without damaging the vehicle.”

In contrast to fleet sales, some wrap jobs are for single vehicles. For instance, Victor Ovdiyenko, general sales manager of Duncan Ford in Key West, FL, says the dealership put graphics on a panel truck for Kermit’s Key West Key Lime.

The vehicle sports bright lime and yellow colors and an image of a pie on the side.

“Whatever you can imagine for an image on your vehicle, it can be reproduced in photo-realistic style,” says Tim Boxeth, business manager for high-performance materials at 3M.

His division has compounded its sales by 20% each year since 2001, when it first introduced adhesive-backed film for automotive applications.

In the last two years, the company has perfected material that conforms to curves and has small openings that let air escape to prevent surface bubbling during an installation.

Beyond vehicles, the technology allows wrapping anything from a building to a boat.

Original Wraps has partnered with Ford on a website where customers can choose colors and graphics and see what it looks like on a configurator. Popular Ford vehicles to wrap include the Fiesta, F150, Fusion and Mustang.

Less than 1% percent of vehicles had custom designs last year, “but we expect to be up to 4% by the end of 2011,” Carlson says.

Almost all of its 47 dealership members participated in a wrap program to generate consumer awareness of a Southeast Michigan Ford dealers association, says the group’s director of advertising, Rick Bartus.

“People see our message all over town,” says Steve Landis, general manager of Elder Ford in Troy, MI.

Innovative Media invested $2 million in hardware, software and installation space, says company partner Jim Whitehead says. “Our goal is to develop a national wrap program.”