Founded by three Seattle women, Three Girls Bakery thrived in the World War I era and has lasted through the years as a Pike Place institution.

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You won’t find three girls at the walk-up window nowadays, and the famous doughnut machine is long gone. But 100 years after it first started tempting customers with coffee cakes “rolled in creamery butter,” tiny Three Girls Bakery still beckons with floor-to-ceiling cases laden with golden pastries and a tucked-away counter serving generous sandwiches to those in the know at Pike Place Market.

In 1912, the Market was 5 years old and the Corner Market building at First and Pike was brand new. Three Girls opened early that year on the corner where Pike Place Flowers is now. Just two years after Washington women won the right to vote, the bakery in that prime location was the rare Seattle business operated by women.

“In 1912, a woman by the name of Mrs. Jones went in to get a business license,” said Jack Levy, who has owned the bakery for the past 33 years. “On the license, they just wrote ‘Mrs. Jones and two of her friends.’ ” One friend would have been Mrs. O.F. (Agnes) Fredericks, bakery manager.

The ambitious entrepreneurs had an ice-cream parlor and coffee shop upstairs, said Levy, who has heard many stories about the early days.

“In the beginning, they had a horse-drawn carriage, and they would take breads out to the Mosquito Fleet and send bread to the islands. It was a big thing.”

Three Girls quickly opened more shops, advertising two loaves of bread for 15 cents: “A good deal for your money.”

Within four years, Three Girls had grown enough to need a wholesale bakery at Seventh Avenue North and Republican Street — about where Aurora crosses Republican now. Its ads boasted it could turn out 100,000 loaves of bread a day. By 1919, Three Girls had eight shops, mostly at public markets similar to Pike Place that dotted downtown in pre-supermarket days.

Around 1920, the bakery was sold and started closing some stores. Despite excitement in the early ’20s over a glass-enclosed doughnut machine, by 1925 Three Girls was back to one location.

Around the Depression, Three Girls moved into the Sanitary Market and stopped baking, becoming an outlet for Brenner Brothers Bakery. Four decades and a string of owners later, Levy and his sister, Zelda Dixon, bought it in 1979.

As far as the bakery business goes, “I didn’t know anything about that,” said Levy, who started out at his dad’s Market produce stand in the mid-1960s. “I knew produce and fish, but I thought I’d give it a try.”

Levy’s first change was to bulk up the sandwiches, piling on meat and making a point of remembering regulars’ orders. The bakery settled into its current location in the early 1980s, and in 1994, Levy took over full ownership.

Although the business is not in its original space, in one way Levy has brought the bakery back to its roots: Once again, Three Girls Bakery actually bakes. Most of the pastries are made by Levy’s family in Three Girls’ Ballard location. (The breads come from other local bakeries.)

Levy’s wife, Atarah, leads the baking operation, which also includes daughter Louie Levy. The family members learned together to tweak recipes to get the tastes they wanted.

“We had no training whatsoever, just doing,” Levy said.

The Levys are especially proud of their shortbreads, such as the Oolala studded with cranberry and pistachio nuts, and Stedy’s, a hazelnut-chocolate cookie featuring coffee roasted by family friend Stedfast Israel. And their rugelachs are local favorites.

“People just love our stuff because it isn’t like cranked-out commercial stuff. It’s like home-baked pastries,” Levy said.

At 100 years old, Three Girls relies more on word-of-mouth than ads to build business. Levy says his regulars personally walk visitors over to the window: “Our customers bring us customers.”

Denise Clifton is the mobile development specialist for the newsroom. Email: