In the late 1990s, Hiroko Kiiffner had been running her small, New York City publishing house, Lake Isle Press, for about 10 years, without a business plan or investors. Yet she and her business partner had managed to produce a small number of solid cookbooks, including Contemporary One-Dish Meals and Low Fat Living for Real People, each of which sold around 40,000 copies. When she got a call from a would-be author in upstate New York who wanted to write a cookbook and publish it in three months, she was skeptical. “I at first was not terribly encouraging,” Kiiffner remembers. Yet something about the writer convinced her, and in 1998, Lake Isle published Rachael Ray’s 30-Minute Meals. It sold more than 800,000 copies.

When Ray called Kiiffner, she introduced herself as someone who was involved in buying and marketing for a gourmet store. “She was a total unknown,” Kiiffner remembers. “Her subject of 30-minute meals was not that unique or sexy. But there was something about her that was very appealing.” Ray convinced Kiiffner to meet her, and the two hit it off. Lake Isle published 30-Minute Meals as a “no-frills” cookbooks without photographs. It is still in print today.

“People assume that [Ray’s] success was very quick,” Kiiffner says, “but in fact she worked very hard during those years; we both did. I didn’t have any employees at the time. Now we have two.” Lake Isle celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, and in some ways, things have changed dramatically. But in others—especially when it comes to the size of its staff—much is the same. When it began publishing Ray, Lake Isle was chugging along with a concentrated but respectable list of cookbooks, many of them health-oriented. It still publishes books in those areas, although it has expanded to publish a few art titles and even a spiritual memoir. And it’s still small. Kiiffner compares the house to a Mini Cooper: “compact, smart, agile, well-designed, and we get great mileage.” The house’s titles are distributed by National Book Network.

Ray released another three books with Lake Isle and then landed a Food Network show. She stayed with the house for nine more books; all 13 titles are still in print and still selling (her new titles are published by Clarkson Potter). At one point, Lake Isle had three of Ray’s books on the New York Times bestseller list simultaneously.

As the years have passed and Ray has dominated bestseller lists, Lake Isle has received numerous pitches from writers declaring they’re the next Rachael Ray. But none of Lake Isle’s books have compared to the success of Ray’s, though the house did well with a 2007 cookbook, Raising the Salad Bar, which sold around 30,000 copies, and 2005’s Serves One, which sold about 25,000 copies. Neither title is associated with a well-known personality.

Still, Lake Isle does have a newer celebrity chef on its list: Jose Garces, the new Iron Chef, whose Latin Evolution Lake Isle published in 2008. The house just signed Garces for a second book. Other cookbook authors on Lake Isle’s fall list may have potential, but not Ray-sized personalities. There’s Machiko Chiba (The Cook-Zen Cookbook), a Japanese cook whose microwave cooking pot is popular in Japan; Salad Bar author Catherine Walthers (Soups + Sides); and Vikas Khanna (Flavors First), who runs the café at the Rubin Museum.

Although Kiiffner knows she’s unlikely to ever replicate the success of Ray’s books, she is “strangely optimistic” about the future. “There’s no question it’s a challenging time, but we are plunging ahead to find meaningful projects—and to work on books that really matter.”